Officials hasten permit process

Environmental review is streamlined for center on Balto. Co.'s east side

Public hearings to be limited

Some concerned that insufficient analysis could lead to ecological damage

May 12, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In an unprecedented move, Baltimore County officials have substantially streamlined the environmental permit phase for a major employment center planned along the Route 43 extension linking White Marsh and Middle River.

Layers of federal, state and county review -- a comprehensive process that typically takes up to nine months -- have been consolidated into a single set of guidelines to be administered by the county Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management. As a result, the review process is expected to take three months.

"That's the way government ought to do business," said County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who is seeking the 2nd Congressional District seat.

Some, including developers and business leaders, say, crank up the bulldozers and chain saws. Others say, not so fast.

"I smell a rat," said Bill Wright, a resident of Bird River Road, which is on the fringe of the development site. "Any time a government mentions streamlining, it's a way to avoid problems they foresee, ... a way to avoid the system of checks and balances, to take away the voice of the people."

"I know you have to have a good place for people to work," said Wright, a retired steelworker who has lived in the area for 40 years. "They've told residents that any new industry they put on the A.V. Williams property will be state of the art. Well, Bethlehem Steel was state of the art when it was first built, and look what happened there."

If the county's projections materialize, the road extension and the commercial and housing developments straddling the high-speed highway could mean 10,000 new jobs and up to $460 million in private investment for the county's east side, a region that has suffered steady economic and social decline since the 1960s.

But rushing development in an ecologically sensitive area is not wise, said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland.

"I am really concerned that the desire for a quick outcome has taken [precedence] over doing things right," Schmidt-Perkins said of the new county agreement.

"This process is there for a reason and is not something you can hurry ... people need to be heard," she said.

Normally, conversion of such a large tract of wooded land would require independent review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Maryland Department of the Environment, the State Highway Administration and various county agencies. However, the county brought these parties together and negotiated an agreement to coordinate agency reviews and approval processes. The agreement also limits the number of public hearings.

The pact will not supersede environmental restrictions and includes detailed surveys of protected resources and requirements that if ecologically sensitive lands are disturbed, they will be re-created elsewhere.

Essex and Middle River and other older communities were selected seven years ago by county leaders for a revitalization of unusual proportions. Hundreds of World War II-era apartments will be torn down to accommodate new homes and parks. Officials also want to create a waterfront destination on the headwaters of Middle River, modeled after such areas in Rock Hall or Havre de Grace. Streets have been beautified, schools modernized and alleys repaved.

More than $850 million in state and county funds have been dedicated to the redevelopment.

Officials hail the latest agreement as a linchpin in that revitalization strategy, designed in part to lure young families back to the area as homeowners.

The environmental fast-tracking is "history-making," said Ruppersberger. "State, federal authorities and developers are teaming with us to cut through the red tape so we can spark business growth and protect the environment."

The $60 million extension of Route 43 -- also know as White Marsh Boulevard -- will run from the retail core of White Marsh Mall and The Avenue to Eastern Boulevard near Martin State Airport. The new road also will provide east-side residents and businesses quick access to Interstates 95 and 695.

Plans call for the four-lane highway, scheduled to be completed by 2005, to be lined on the west side by hundreds of affordable single-family homes and on the east by high-wage industries, such as computer assembly plants or a mini-version of Allison Transmission, already in White Marsh.

"The focus is to attract higher-end employment and clean business there," said David A.C. Carroll, director of the county Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management agency.

"There will be no steel smelting there," Carroll said. "We want to be as gentle with the land as we can be."

Since the 1960s, the 1,000 acres known as the A.V. Williams tract, and some adjacent land, have been eyed by developers for an auto-manufacturing plant, an Asian theme park and, in 1996, a NASCAR raceway that promoters called world-class.

The latter plan collapsed after local residents complained that the track would bring pollution, noise and traffic jams. Promoters also failed to secure approval for the facility from NASCAR's governing body. The project was transformed into a proposed track for motorcycle races and flea markets, a plan rejected by county government.

This time around, area residents and environmentalists vow to be more vigilant.

"Maryland's wetlands are vitally important for many reasons, one being they are one of the best natural water filters," said Geoff Oxnam of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The group, in its most recent annual report card, found that the health of the bay declined last year, Oxnam said. The state's wetlands, he said, did only slightly better.

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