Mediation sought in Damascus House feud

Treatment facility expansion at issue

March 05, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

It helped settle a dispute in Solley between an electricity powerhouse planning to transport a toxic chemical through a community and its residents who feared environmental catastrophe. Now, another community's leaders are hoping mediation will have the same result in a bitter disagreement over a treatment center's plan to expand in Brooklyn Park.

Rachel Wohl, executive director of the Maryland Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission, said her office has been asked to help mend fences between Brooklyn Park residents and Damascus House, a 17-bed drug treatment facility nestled in a residential neighborhood a few blocks south of the Baltimore line.

Damascus House, which is set back from the 4200 block of Ritchie Highway, intends to purchase a nearby house on Edison Street, renovate it and add 15 beds. The facility also wants to add two four-bedroom transitional houses on the Edison property's lot. Neighbors oppose both facets of the plan, noting a perceived threat to property values and safety concerns.

Wohl, who met with neighbors and Damascus House staff last week at the behest of Del. John R. Leopold, said she is undaunted by the vitriol surrounding the expansion debate. Mediation, she said, often has a calming effect.

"People can walk in at each other's throats and walk out planning a barbecue."

As an example, Wohl told neighbors of mediation's triumphs in Solley. There, Constellation Power Source Generation Inc., which took over the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. Brandon Shores plant, had planned to truck anhydrous ammonia, a potentially hazardous substance, through the community.

After many meetings and discussions, the company agreed to transport a more diluted form of the chemical, to be used in its new anti-pollution system.

At first, Wohl said, "the community was ready to send children with gas masks to ring the power plant." In July, that's exactly what it did. With eight police officers watching, close to 20 children peered out at motorists through their gas masks, their protesting mothers waving signs nearby.

Brooklyn Park residents who attended Wohl's meeting said they sensed a different tone from the gatherings in the past three months, where residents either launched into high-pitched monologues about their fears or bombarded officials with questions - often unanswered - about the criteria for entry into the drug treatment program.

This time, "they had to say what they had to say. We had to say what we had to say. There was no bickering," said Charles Mooneyhan, Damascus House's program director.

He said he is expecting a call to set up the mediation process this week. In addition, Damascus House's board of directors will meet tomorrow to decide whether to press forward with the expansion.

Brooklyn Heights Improvement Association President Virginia Eidinger said she left the meeting with Wohl feeling positive about mediation.

"It could be good, she said. "It would give the community an opportunity to have some say."

That, many residents have said, is what they have wanted all along.

In the past three months, residents have accused Damascus House of trying to pull the wool over their eyes with the expansion.

Though Mooneyhan outlined the plans at an association meeting last spring, most neighbors did not attend. Additionally, the plan Mooneyhan presented changed: He had told the association that Damascus House would tear down the existing house, but it has since decided to renovate the structure to improve its chances of receiving state grant money.

Neighbors learned of the plan shortly before Christmas, when signs went up on the Edison Street property announcing the facility was seeking a zoning change.

The Edison property is split almost down the middle - zoned half residential, half commercial - and Damascus House wanted to convert it to all commercial because that would make its expansion easier.

Residents, feeling overrun by the commercialism on Ritchie Highway, opposed the change. So did state delegates, who appealed to the hearing officer in a strongly worded letter.

Now, Mooneyhan said, Damascus House's board has decided to abandon its rezoning quest. It is both an overture to the community and an ironic move, considering the zoning signs landed it in the middle of the bitter debate in the first place.

"It was the zoning that got us in here," Mooneyhan said. "Maybe it's the zoning that will get us out."

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