Ruppersberger says voters should decide land seizure

East-side renewal opponents seeking referendum on law

May 16, 2000|By David Nitkin and Joe Nawrozki | David Nitkin and Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In a move calculated to defuse burning tension over his neighborhood revitalization plans, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger agreed yesterday that voters should decide whether government can seize land in three neighborhoods for economic development.

Joining forces with his opponents, Ruppersberger lent support to a petition drive that would place his property condemnation law on the November ballot. The move allows the county executive to take his renewal plans to the public at a time when the opponents say momentum is on their side.

Activists have been gathering petition signatures at shopping malls, festivals and veterans halls since the General Assembly passed the legislation last month.

Ruppersberger signed the petition yesterday at a noon news conference, becoming one of the 24,100 registered voters needed to sign it by June 30 to trigger a fall vote. As television cameras rolled, he added his name to a form that turned out to be invalid because it was misprinted. A few minutes later, he signed a correct copy provided by Del. Diane DeCarlo, a leading opponent of the condemnation plan.

He also challenged DeCarlo, a White Marsh Democrat, or another opponent to seven one-on-one debates - one in each County Council district - beginning after Labor Day and leading up to the election. "As long as we have this kind of informed discussion on the facts, I'll be happy no matter what happens in November," Ruppersberger said. "If, after hearing all the facts, the voters uphold the law, obviously I'll be pleased. If they don't, the people will have spoken. Our debates will have enhanced our understanding of these difficult issues."

The unexpected move underscores increasingly heated emotions over Ruppersberger's plans to acquire more than 300 apartments, homes and businesses in Essex-Middle River, Dundalk and Randallstown and to sell or give the land to developers.

The condemnation law is part of a broader strategy that will displace more than 2,300 apartment residents - including 800 families in the Villages of Tall Trees in Essex. Tall Trees is targeted for demolition by a separate eminent domain declaration by the county and will be converted into public parkland as part of a waterfront village.

Some residents say that they resent being told they live in a slum and that property owners - and not carpetbagger developers - should benefit from government renewal plans.

Political observers called Ruppersberger's decision a shrewd move in the face of mounting grass-roots discontent. Even if he doesn't win the fight, they said, he will be viewed as a proponent of public participation. "Good for him. It's a gutsy thing to do," said Donald P. Hutchinson, a former Baltimore County executive and state legislator who is president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "It's the kind of issue that if petitioners get it to the ballot and there is a referendum, it's a difficult issue to prevail on," Hutchinson said. "People don't trust government enough to give them that power, if they are disengaged and indifferent. ... My guess is he thinks the only way he can prevail is to use his communications skills."

Del. James F. Ports Jr., a Perry Hall Republican who will likely serve as Ruppersberger's debate opponent, said the executive was responding to the reality that the petition drive was gaining steam. As of last night, organizers said they had gathered about 10,000 signatures, more than the 8,033 required by a May 31 interim deadline. "I think he's heard it enough that we are doing very well," said Ports, who called Ruppersberger's move "a political win-win." "He looks good to the developers he's already promised to get it through, and he looks good to the people," Ports said.

Opposition to the executive's plan has been growing since January, when county officials unveiled their proposal and moved quickly to secure approval from state legislators. The county's vision includes an upscale waterfront village in Essex-Middle River, where opponents have been most vocal.

Several business owners and residents claimed that they were blind-sided by the plan, and they quickly mobilized a raucous band of opponents who descended on Annapolis by the busload. Government shouldn't be allowed to take land they've worked hard to maintain, they said as they waved signs and organized rallies.

Ruppersberger says the neighborhoods that he is targeting have suffered from a lack of investment as others have flourished during unprecedented economic prosperity. He calls the condemnation power a limited tool that would be used only if sales can't be negotiated.

After intense lobbying, he persuaded the General Assembly to pass the bill last month.

Undeterred, opponents said they would give voters the last word. In Maryland, state laws can be placed on the ballot through a referendum process that requires signatures from 10 percent of voters - in this case, from Baltimore County - in the most recent gubernatorial election.

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