Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Del. James F. Ports Jr. squared off last night in their first of a series of open public debates about a hotly contested neighborhood revitalization law that could be the prelude to the most ambitious redevelopment project in county history.
Meeting at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Ruppersberger and Ports argued before a reserved crowd of more than 100 people the points that most residents of Essex-Middle River, Randallstown and Dundalk have heard repeated since the law was passed last spring. The measure will be challenged in a November referendum.
After the debate, it appeared Ruppersberger swayed few in the crowd of mostly people opposed to the law.
Larry Schugan, 29, of Pikesville, said: "After hearing both sides, I'm leaning toward voting against it. It just doesn't sound like much of a solution for the people who are living there now."
One vote of approval came from Ruppersberger's economic development chief and a key architect of the plan, Robert L. Hannon: "I think the executive spoke very clearly on the issue. He focused on the long-term programs. There was no alternative suggestion of how to do this better."
From the start, attendees noticed one clear difference in style.
Ruppersberger, wearing a crisp white shirt, red tie and dark suit, appeared particularly more forceful and serious than his usual jocular self, while his opponent, a Perry Hall Republican, showed up relaxed, sporting a Navy blazer and fishing for a few laughs from the crowd.
Observers noted that Ruppersberger has more at stake, a possible bid for governor in 2002.
In what has become a rallying cry on both sides of the executive's plan, Senate Bill 509 is designed to refurbish older - some of them decaying - sections of the county and open those areas for developers. The law carries a condemnation clause that gives Baltimore County unprecedented power to seize 39 parcels in Essex-Middle River, Randallstown and Dundalk.
Ruppersberger could suffer a symbolic defeat in November if the law is rejected in the countywide referendum.
It is on the post-industrial eastside, hit hard by the loss of tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs, where Ruppersberger is banking on scoring a major victory.
The county has razed a World War II-vintage apartment complex, Riverdale Apartments, for new housing and is negotiating to knock down another, the Villages of Tall Trees, for a park. And it is there where most of the dramatic changes will occur.
Officials want to attract young couples back to the area with new single-family homes and a spruced-up waterfront on Middle River with a restaurant, trendy shops and other attractions.
Last night, Ruppersberger, who spoke first, said, "Week in and week out, I hear people telling me they want neighborhood renewal, they want help."
While Ports listened carefully from behind his podium, Ruppersberger continued: "I hear from people in Randallstown, Dundalk and Middle River, `Dutch, I'm tired of hearing the police sirens in my neighborhood. I want my children to be able to play outside and be safe. I want to drive through my community and be proud of what I see.'"
Ruppersberger, like Ports, had a multimedia presentation, flipping through pictures of people and the areas they say the law directly affects.
Ports chose to invoke one of the nation's founding fathers, James Madison, when he started his 30 minutes of debate. Ports underscored Madison's opposition to the seizure of property, then said, "You see, folks, this question was answered over a little more than 200 years ago."
Ports said seven waterfront cottages targeted for condemnation near a planned marina revitalization on Middle River are not part of a slum or blighted as has been often described. The waterfront cottages, he said, are "a working man's million-dollar view and that's what the county wants."
"These people helped build their community and now they are being told their services are no longer needed," Ports said.
The legislator was also critical of a 60-acre tract, owned by the husband of fellow Del. Nancy Hubers, an Essex Democrat. The prime property of Daniel Hubers sits adjacent to a privately developed $35 million village called Hopewell Pointe, which also will feature a waterfront restaurant and boat slips.
Ruppersberger read two letters he said his office has received that strongly endorse his plan.
One, from David Abbasi from Wilson Point, said he is "embarrassed when visitors come to see us and have to travel along Eastern Boulevard."
Another letter-writer, Sam Tunanidas from Yorkway in Dundalk, wrote he was fed up with the rampant drug dealing in his neighborhood. "I was putting my house up for sale. Then I heard about Dutch Ruppersberger's plan to take the complex out. That changed my mind.
"I said I will stay here if they knock down that hellhole," Tunanidas wrote. Several blocks on Yorkway are known for open-air drug markets and two killings.
Ruppersberger noted in his rebuttal that Ports voted for a similar condemnation law in Prince George's County in 1996.
Most people who attended the debate last night said that although they strongly opposed the condemnation component of the law, they favor Ruppersberger's vision for rejuvenating the older neighborhoods.
The other debates, all at 7 p.m., will be Sept. 20, Randallstown High School, 4000 Offutt Road; Sept. 27, Loch Raven High School, 1212 Cowpens Ave.; Oct. 1, Kenwood High School, 501 Stemmers Run Road; Oct. 11, Perry Hall High School, 4601 Ebenezer Road, and Oct. 25, Patapsco High School, 8100 Wise Ave.
Comcast Communications Inc. will broadcast the debates on Channel 25, BCTV, until Nov. 7.