Developer's project had bumpy ride

Mistrust of builder fostered opposition to fun-park proposal

Racetrack suspected

New law scuttled plans for center on Dover Road site

November 11, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

For the Les Jenkins Family Fun Park, the last six months have been a strange ride indeed.

In May, when developer Jenkins proposed his project - to include go-cart tracks, waterslides, BMX bike tracks, a skate park and an arcade next to the Glen Burnie waste disposal site - he piqued the interest of county officials who thought area teen-agers needed more entertainment options.

But this week, some of those same officials helped push through an emergency bill banning go-carts from commercial recreational facilities, abruptly scuttling the project hours before a scheduled Board of Appeals hearing on the issue.

"It's sort of like a baseball game, where they're saying, `I missed the third ball, so give me a fourth,' and then it's four strikes and you're out," said Jenkins, who said he spent thousands of dollars on the proposal to win his variance, only to be trumped by the new law.

How a family fun park became such a hot-button issue hinges on Jenkins, a Sparrows Point resident with ties to Ed and Missy Berge, Baltimore County developers who tried to build a racetrack in Pasadena in 1999.

From the beginning, many opponents of the project were convinced that the Berges, through Jenkins, were trying to push through the racetrack they had been denied.

They pointed to his drawings, which consisted of a series of elevated tracks placed on a 32-acre parcel. They were concerned when Jenkins hired engineering firm John E. Harms Jr. and Associates and attorney Charles F. Delavan - the same team the Berges used when crafting their racetrack proposal.

In June, after a presentation from Jenkins' team of engineers and architects, a county hearing officer granted Jenkins a special exception that permitted him to build his $20 million park farther from an expressway than the half-mile specified in the county code.

The officer's 27-page decision included many restrictions - among them required road improvements and a provision banning racing. But that wasn't enough for residents opposed to the project, who formed an organization to thwart the proposal.

They called themselves Homeowners Organized to Protect Our Environment (HOPE), hired a lawyer and appealed the special exception.

"Without a doubt, he was trying to build a racetrack there - a full-blown racetrack," said HOPE spokesman Thomas Saunders, a Glen Burnie resident.

Del. Mary M. Rosso, a Pasadena Democrat who remembered Jenkins from her days as a neighborhood activist fighting the Berges, was already convinced of that. She and the well-established network of racetrack opponents in Pasadena offered HOPE its support and expertise.

County Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle initially supported the idea of a family amusement park when Jenkins met with her in the spring. She was particularly enthusiastic about Jenkins' plans to add a skateboard park, and encouraged him to reach out to the community.

But the Linthicum Democrat soon questioned the site, the project and Jenkins' decision not to inform the community of his proposal until a week before the zoning hearing. She, too, feared the project would be more racetrack than amusement park.

"Once we realized what the project was about, I realized it didn't belong there," said Beidle, who was one of three council members who introduced the emergency bill signed last week.

Beidle said she was also concerned after reading about Jenkins' background in The Sun.

Jenkins and his backers claimed he was director of special events for home shopping channel QVC and spoke of his long career with the U.S. Marshals Service. The Sun reported in July that Jenkins worked for QVC for two years as a security guard, according to company officials. His U.S. Marshals career lasted about as long: from 1974 to 1976, he worked part-time as a deputy marshal. The newspaper also reported he filed for personal bankruptcy in 1990.

Even if the legislation hadn't stopped him, Beidle said, Jenkins might not have been able to finance the park. But she said the residents couldn't afford to take that chance. Jenkins' park, they contended, would further pollute Furnace Creek and bring more traffic and noise to the clogged Ritchie Highway corridor.

"People wanted to be comfortable," she said. "They wanted it to end."

Changing the rules on developers like Jenkins is not unprecedented in the county, said Fred Sussman, a longtime Annapolis zoning and land-use attorney who is chairman of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce's government relations committee. But Sussman said he and others at the chamber worry it sends a message that the county is not business-friendly.

"It undercuts any predictability that people who invest in the county can have in governmental processes," he said. "People should have the right to proceed and make investments based on the law as it exists."

Sussman added that targeting individuals in legislation is "dangerous" - zoning laws, he said, are all about land use, not developers' personalities.

After conceding defeat last week, Jenkins vowed to build his park somewhere else. He declined to specify where, saying only that it wouldn't be in Anne Arundel County.

He won at least one new fan: Board of Appeals Chairman Christopher H. Wilson.

"Thank you, Mr. Jenkins, for going quietly into this dark night so quickly," Wilson said at the end of the hearing. "And let me know where this bad boy's going to be, because I really enjoy driving those fun cars."

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