Zoning battle closer to end

County appeals panel OKs exception for mulching operation

State permit next on list

October 11, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The stumps can stay.

Over the objections of neighbors, Howard County's Board of Appeals unanimously approved a special exception late Tuesday for a long-contested mulching and composting business in Clarksville that processes wood cleared from developments. The board attached 17 conditions, an unusually high number, for the business, including one that sets the hours of operation.

But the conditions - and even the vote - are not final until the board signs a written "decision and order."

The owner of Forest Recycling Project, Alfred S. Bassler, still must win a permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment. The Howard board's approval clears the way for state officials to review the operation, which they said could take a while - but the county's longest-running zoning dispute might at last be in its final chapter.

While awaiting this final step, Bassler will continue operating his business, said his attorney, Thomas E. Lloyd. In a negotiated settlement that came from a lawsuit in the 1990s, he said, the department of the environment agreed to cooperate with Bassler as he developed a method of composting large stumps.

Started 19 years ago

County officials began investigating the operation 19 years ago after a complaint from a neighbor. Officials have issued zoning violation notices because Bassler did not have a special exception, but he said the county didn't initially have regulations on the books that applied to his operation.

The Board of Appeals began hearing the case in 1999 after several state and county lawsuits challenging the legality of the business. After 19 meetings that delved into the long history of the zoning dispute, board members had clearly heard enough.

"I think we got overloaded," said Chairman Robert C. Sharps. "I think this case presented more information than we ever needed."

Neighbors' complaints

Bassler could not be reached for comment yesterday, but earlier he said that neighbors complain about noise generated by his business even though trucks driving on nearby Route 32 are probably louder.

"They hear that and accept it; they hear this and they're annoyed," he said. "If you hear with annoyance, anything is bad."

His 70-acre business off Sheppard Lane was born of the development boom in the Baltimore region. He started the work about 25 years ago and argues that trees cleared for houses must go somewhere.

But nearby residents - who had hoped the board would shut down the operation - contend that the "stump dump" is so noisy they can hear the sounds of trucks and heavy machinery through closed windows. They also think it's dangerous because two fires started there in the past 12 years.

Reaction `not fit to print'

Bob Van Dyke, a neighbor who hired lawyer David A. Carney to oppose the business, said yesterday that he offered to the board evidence of the Forest Recycling Project's effects on his property, including tape recordings of machine noises made at his back doorstep.

"This is zoning's equivalent of the O.J. [Simpson] verdict - they tossed out the blood and they tossed out the DNA," he said in frustration. "My comments [about] the process and the quality of the decision are not fit to print."

Conditions are set

Board members said Tuesday night that residents had not presented proof that their property values had been affected by the Forest Recycling Project. Many moved into the neighborhood after Bassler started the business, member Jacqueline Scott said.

"While it's troublesome ... I hope to mitigate the impact with some of the conditions," she said.

Bassler, whose graying hair stands out like an exclamation against his deeply tanned face, is quick with quips and slow to give in. "I think I'm giving the community what it wants but can't give itself," he says.

Some residents say he has stonewalled the county and state all these years, and others say he simply attempted to wade through a murky morass of changing regulations.

Carney argued last month that 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.

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

`A very difficult case'

Yesterday, he praised the board for the way it handled what he called "a very difficult case."

"It fairly considered the evidence from everybody, and it evaluated that evidence in a strict accordance with the law," he said. "I'm very grateful to the members of the board for being so patient."

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