Grass-roots campaign seeks to choke condemnation plan

County residents want Nov. referendum

April 29, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Cynthia Parsram logs long hours as a software engineer, but when she leaves the office these days her work is far from over.

Parsram, 46, belongs to a growing army that spends its evenings and weekends patrolling the sidewalks and shopping centers of Baltimore County. Armed with clipboards and a healthy dose of indignation, its mission is clear: gather enough petition signatures to force a November referendum on whether county officials should have the right to condemn land for economic development.

"I go out every day," said Parsram. "I might be going in the neighborhood, or at work. Everyone tries to do something every day."

County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger earned a hard-fought victory in Annapolis this year when the legislature passed a measure that expands the government's power of eminent domain in neighborhoods of Essex-Middle River, Randallstown and Dundalk.

Opponents, outraged at the thought of government using tax dollars to buy land and sell it to developers, are following through on a promise to give voters the final say.

Under Maryland law, if 10 percent of registered voters who participated in the most recent gubernatorial election sign petitions, a state or local law can be placed on the ballot. In Baltimore County, that means 24,100 valid signatures are needed by June 30, with 8,033 of them due by May 31.

Dels. Diane DeCarlo, a White Marsh Democrat, and James F. Ports Jr., a Perry Hall Republican, believe they can meet that goal.

Ceremony today

As leaders of the petition drive, they oversee 30 "captains" who are responsible for distributing petitions to at least 10 "lieutenants." The two lawmakers plan to attend a ceremonial kickoff for the petition drive today at 2 p.m. at Commodore Hall, 1909 Old Eastern Ave.

If everything goes according to plan, Ports said, activists will gather more than twice the number of signatures they need. They would then face the even more daunting task of mounting a grass-roots advertising and lobbying campaign against one of the region's most knowledgeable and best-funded politicians.

Ruppersberger has more than $1 million in campaign funds for an anticipated gubernatorial bid in 2002, money that could be spent on ads touting his redevelopment plan. And the executive's job gives him dozens of speaking platforms each month.

"There's no question about it. It's an uphill battle," said Ports. "But it doesn't hurt to try."

Parsram is undaunted. For her, the issue is personal: Her father and in-laws could be forced from their homes under the plan.

"My purpose in this is so it doesn't happen to anyone else," she said. "It's been a nightmare for all of us."

Parsram's sentiments echo often-heard criticisms of the plan, which fall into three major categories:

Scope: Ruppersberger says the plan is narrowly focused because the Senate bill lists specific addresses. Critics counter that it could have a broader impact as more addresses are added.

Need: To condemn property, the county must declare it a slum, blighted or in need of development. Those descriptions infuriate many Essex-Middle River residents who take pride in their modest homes.

Timing: The bill was introduced in Annapolis before people in the affected neighborhoods knew about it. Ruppersberger says state approval was only a first step and that there is plenty of time for debate.

Criticism

Some Ruppersberger supporters say privately that the executive miscalculated opposition to his plan. But officials say publicly that they believe criticism stems from misinformation spread by a small band of activists.

"Was it handled perfectly? I think the answer is clearly no," said Elise Armacost, a Ruppersberger spokeswoman. "In retrospect, we could have communicated better at an earlier point in time."

The arguments are starting to spread beyond the rough-and-tumble political world of the county's east side, where each Monday raucous organizers meet at the Commodore for strategy sessions that attract crowds of more than 100. Attending this week's meeting was Ellen R. Sauerbrey. The former county lawmaker and two-time GOP gubernatorial nominee called the bill "an alarming expansion of government power."

Unusual effort

There is no script for her and other opponents to follow as they set out to overturn a state law. No similar issue has been placed on the ballot anywhere in Maryland since 1978, said Donna Duncan, a state elections division manager. Doris J. Suter, the county's election supervisor, said she can't remember a similar referendum in her 37 years in that post.

The issue could become a test of Ruppersberger's popularity, but the executive doesn't seem worried. As of Thursday, he had not seen the petition. But he's eager, Armacost said, to explain his views.

"I think its clear that he wants to take an active role in educating people about this law," she said. "He wants to make sure that people understand the totality of what he is trying to do to improve middle-class communities. The notion that we are trying to turn [them] into an enclave for the rich is not true."

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