Trees felled

work halted

Long-opposed 11-house project hits another snag

Deviations in design

Developer disputes extent of damage

surveyor role noted

Ellicott City

January 04, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Further delaying a project dogged by community opposition for three years, Howard County officials have issued a stop-work order against an 11-house development being built around a wooded ravine in Ellicott City.

County inspectors say concerns about tree-felling that started two weeks ago at the property and about deviations from the initial building designs prompted them to stop contractors working for developer Ronald Wildman. Tree harvesters appear to have cleared woods outside the boundaries outlined in the county-approved plans for the development - Bonnie Branch Overlook - in a hilly crook adjacent to a stream, inspectors say.

"The plan delineates the area that may be de-wooded, and the contractor doing the work went beyond the area slightly," said J. Michael Evans, director of the Howard County Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits. "Harvesting should be an exact science. It's either in the limit or outside the limit."

Yesterday, Wildman disputed the extent of the damage done outside the boundaries and attributed whatever violations did occur to his surveyors' accidental failure to flag one corner of the protected area.

The stop-work order - a relatively rare step in the county - is the latest turn in the drawn-out battle over a 10-acre wooded island between several older cul-de-sacs and scenic byway Bonnie Branch Road. Wildman bought the land for only $105,000 because it is difficult to get to and plentiful wetlands convinced many that it was not good for development.

But over the strenuous objections of neighbors, Wildman succeeded in winning county approval to build 11 $250,000 to $300,000 homes on about 2.5 acres, in addition to an access road and a bridge over one of the three streams on the property.

Having failed to stop the project in the approval process, neighbors have now managed to at least stall it in the construction phase. In persistent calls to county officials over the past two weeks, they accused Wildman of engaging in a dead-of-night maneuver as sly as the Baltimore Colts' 1984 move to Indianapolis.

A few days before Christmas, neighbors say, when they and county inspectors were busy with holiday preparations, Wildman had workers start clearing trees, including ones he was supposed to leave standing in a roughly 100- by 100-foot section. In addition, neighbors reported, the workers were using a different access route to the property than the one shown on the plans.

"If the county wrote all these rules and regulations and approved certain things, then the developer should have to abide by them," said Thomas C. Clark, who has lived on nearby Bonnie View Court for 36 years. "Not that anyone wants to limit any type of commercial operation, but he should work with the rules and regulations set down."

Wildman said the workers started cutting trees when they did to take advantage of the frozen ground, which would suffer less damage from heavy equipment than when the ground is thawed. In addition, he said, he was planning to seek permission to cut the additional trees at a later point anyway, because most of them were poplars - relatively fragile trees that he worried might blow over onto the new homes.

As for the changed access route, Wildman said he recently obtained permission to cross a Bonnie View Court neighbor's property to enter the site, rather than having to cross wetlands from Bonnie Branch Road. He didn't go door-to-door to inform other neighbors of the change in plans, he said, because "I don't like getting the door slammed in my face."

Wildman has redrawn his plans to expand his construction area to include the section where trees were inappropriately cleared. Evans, the inspections director, said the county Soil Conservation District, a government agency that oversees sensitive areas such as the ravine, must approve the change before work can resume.

Meanwhile, bulldozers are sitting unused on the property amid uncleared fallen trees, a delay Wildman said is costing him dearly.

"Technically, [the boundary] should have been flagged. I'm not going to deny that. I'm not going to blame the [surveyors], but that's what happened," Wildman said. "But you can't believe what's been done to make it all protected. To make an issue out of cutting a couple trees. ..."

According to Ellicott City activist Lee Walker Oxenham, who has aided the neighbors' battle with Wildman, the issue went beyond "a couple trees."

"The point is the principle. You do not go beyond the [boundary]. That is a fixed barrier and you are to abide by it," she said. "He just waved his hand at it and said, `This is meaningless.' He was sure no one would notice it."

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