Quiet defense launched for renewal plan

Ruppersberger meets with leaders to gain backing

`We're moving forward'

Condemnation bill is likely headed for Nov. referendum

July 17, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Breaking a self-imposed silence, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger has begun a quiet defense of community renewal plans that have been under attack for months.

As opponents make plans in taverns and auto-body shops along the county's waterfront, plotting against a Ruppersberger-backed law allowing government to take land for economic development, the executive is inviting hand-picked groups of business owners, community leaders and clergy to his offices in Towson.

Two meetings have been held since July 6, with a third scheduled July 25. At each, about a dozen leaders have heard a status report on Ruppersberger's goals for revitalizing Essex-Middle River and other areas.

"We were looking for people who would have an open mind at this point," said Elise Armacost, a Ruppersberger spokeswoman. "[Those] who, after hearing a fair presentation, could make up their minds themselves, and who perhaps might go back to their communities with some good information."

Senate Bill 509, the condemnation plan that appears headed for a referendum on the November ballot because of a grass-roots petition drive, is only a small part of his administration's neighborhood renewal efforts, Ruppersberger is telling the groups. Projects such as the redevelopment of the former Riverdale apartment site and a master plan for three private marinas on Punte Lane are progressing, he says. They'll proceed even if voters overturn the condemnation law at the ballot box.

"We're moving ahead on our redevelopment plans," Ruppersberger said in an interview last week. "We're moving forward and we're seeing results."

Not surprisingly, the executive is finding receptive audiences. A lifelong east-side resident, Randy Cogar, 54, owner of Cogar Printing Inc. on Martin Boulevard, said he supports the Ruppersberger administration's plans for his neighborhood and will do his part to convince friends and acquaintances of their benefits. He said he learned little at the meeting July 6 that he didn't know.

"They were asking people who feel this can be something positive for the community, if nothing else, [to] try to correct the untruths that are being spread," said Cogar. "It's not spread maliciously. It's misperceived, and it starts to skyrocket from there."

Administration officials say that critics of their redevelopment plans have distorted facts and spread fear about the scope and intent of the condemnation plan. Opponents deny the allegations, but the tension has been mounting for months.

In January, Ruppersberger announced that he was seeking General Assembly approval for SB 509, a law that would allow the county to extend its eminent domain powers to land sought for economic development. The bill listed more than 300 addresses in Essex-Middle River, Dundalk and Randallstown that the county wanted to buy.

In particular, the county wanted to use the new power to create a waterfront village in Essex-Middle River, converting aging commercial property into a destination for boaters, tourists and visitors.

East-side business owners and residents cried foul, saying they should have been told about the plans before they were introduced. Government shouldn't have the power to displace residents and allow developers to make money from property that was once theirs, they said.

After Ruppersberger lobbied for the bill's passage in Annapolis, opponents mounted a petition drive to overturn it. They appear to have enough signatures to trigger a November referendum; a final decision by state elections officials is due this week.

Ruppersberger ultimately backed the petition drive and agreed to a series of debates after Labor Day, but opponents grew frustrated that in the past month he had declined other debate invitations and television appearances.

The invitation-only meetings are the executive's first effort to stem the grass-roots tide running against him.

His goal: convincing residents that the condemnation law has limited impact, and that his vision for redevelopment is best for the county.

Robert Palmer, owner of Tradewinds Marina, served on a waterfront task force under former County Executive Roger B. Hayden and helping draft an east-side strategy in the current master plan.

He rejects the argument that renewal plans are moving too fast, saying he's been working on them for the better part of a decade.

"I think everyone there was in favor of getting the whole revitalization done," said Palmer, referring to those who attended the meeting on July 6.

"A lot of it can be done without Senate Bill 509 authority. But without it, there will be some aspects that will never be what they could be."

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