Oldest zoning dispute takes a step forward

Board of Appeals hears closing arguments on wood recycling project


September 19, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Howard County's longest-running zoning dispute - a 19-year-old case about composting that's been punctuated with lawsuits, hearings and accusations - is approaching the light at the end of at least one tunnel.

The county Board of Appeals heard closing arguments last night about the Forest Recycling Project in Clarksville, two years after its first meeting on the issue.

Board members, who were considering whether to grant a special exception for the operation, had not voted by 9:15 p.m. and did not expect to do so until their next meeting.

In addition to the board's approval, Alfred S. Bassler, owner of the recycling project, needs to win a permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment to continue operations.

The battle over his 70-acre business off Sheppard Lane is a side effect of the swift development in Howard and neighboring counties.

Bassler, who has operated the business about 25 years, takes in remnants of trees cleared from land being prepared for houses or stores.

He composts some of the wood, a process that takes from 18 months to seven years, and turns the rest into mulch.

"We're doing the Earth a favor and humankind a favor by converting what humans waste into a useful product that will grow a tree again - or bushes or grass," Bassler said.

But people who live near the operation object. They say the smell and noise is obnoxious - trucks bring the trees in, and Bassler uses heavy equipment to process them - and neighbors are also concerned about the potential for fires.

Two fires have started there in the past 12 years.

"We're all frustrated with the fact that this has gone on so long, for so many years, with no relief," said Jennifer Lee, who lives in the Twelve Hills neighborhood.

The county first discussed zoning issues with Bassler in 1982.

The county and the state Department of the Environment later filed separate lawsuits against Bassler over his operation.

The Board of Appeals could help resolve the debate - or its decision could be a steppingstone in a long process of appeals.

Attorney David A. Carney, who represents Bob Van Dyke, one of Bassler's neighbors, argued last night that the Forest Recycling Project is a "dangerous" industrial business in a residential neighborhood. He said that Bassler should have filed for a special exception years ago but did not.

"He has been able to beat the system," Carney said.

Thomas E. Lloyd, Bassler's attorney, contended that his client has done nothing wrong and is meeting all the conditions for a special exception.

"He's been operating legally, and nobody could prove he had a violation," Lloyd said.

Before the meeting, Van Dyke said he could hear noise from the Forest Recycling Project from inside his house with the windows closed. He argued that it's pre- ventable.

"Other facilities that do the same business that he does, they use electrical motors," Van Dyke said. "That eliminates the noise factor."

But Lloyd suggested in his closing arguments that the neighbors were "oversensitized to sound."

To prove an "adverse affect," a key element the board is considering, residents need to show that the operation "actually and ma- terially diminishes the value of the property," he said.

Lloyd said that has not been the case.

The county Department of Planning and Zoning recommended approval of the special exception request - with 19 conditions, including one about smoke and odors.

Bassler, who does not agree with some of those conditions, contends that Howard County needs his operation.

"It's an unpopular use," he said, "and nobody wants to be the one that says yes."

Carney said that he believes the deliberation by members of the Board of Appeals on the long-running dispute will be especially challenging. "It may be the toughest case they ever have to decide," the attorney said.

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