Seeing red, fearing bleats

Threat: A developer tells neighbors he'll bring in goats unless they buy his lot or persuade Howard County to let him use it his way.

July 10, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

In the tiny neighborhood of Walnut Springs, every house is a tasteful tan, white or brick.

Then there's the blazing red shed.

Perched on a hilly, weedy plot and surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, set between two expensive homes and facing two more, it has become the eye-catching center of an otherwise refined community.

For families living up and down the street, it is also a relentless reminder of how they are being pulled against their will into a crusade that is not their own.

The shed and the land it sits on are owned by Walnut Springs' developer, Charles W. Schroyer. He would like to sell the property as a building lot, but the county says that would violate agricultural preservation rules.

The developer thinks he is being cheated by the county and has offered the 21 homeowners who live in the Western Howard development some unusual choices:

They can help him intensely lobby the county until officials let him build a house there. They can buy the land from him for $70,000. Or they can end up living as close as 40 yards to a livestock operation.

Option three is just now kicking in. Schroyer built the shed in May, after fencing in the land and decorating it with "FOR SALE" signs. He intends to start with goats in a few weeks. If that doesn't get politicians seeing things his way, he said, he'll bring in chickens. Then pigs.

Livestock protest

It's a money-losing proposition, he acknowledges. The point is power in numbers: to protest in a way that will get 21 families to help him because now they're affected, too.

"Direct the anger to the appropriate parties, not to me," said Schroyer, 63, a retired contractor who lives in an out-of-the-way spot in the neighborhood. "I'm doing what I'm allowed to do - in fact, the only thing I'm allowed to do."

The other residents feel trapped.

They wouldn't be outraged if Schroyer built a house. Some would prefer it to an empty, unmown 1.4-acre parcel in the middle of the one-street neighborhood.

But they don't care for the shed or its attention-catching paint job, they don't like the idea of unsupervised animals roaming near their children, and they don't appreciate the "or else" ultimatum.

"It felt like we were being extorted," said architect John Hogan, 37, who lives across the street from the structure. "We're kind of at our wits' end."

`Hostage' strategy

"He's holding our neighborhood hostage," added Ray Patsy, 41, a financial planner who moved in five years ago, sold on the beautiful view.

They don't understand why Schroyer would create a lovely community and then - in their eyes - spoil it. After buying their 1-acre lots for as much as $105,000, they figure they've already made him a fortune.

`That's my profit'

But Schroyer, who thinks the hilly preserved parcel is the nicest one on the block and could bring him $150,000, claims he spent nearly as much on development costs as he made.

"That's my profit, sitting up there," he said.

Schroyer bought the 107-acre Walnut Springs estate in 1988 and moved his family there a year later, figuring he could get a farmer to rent some of the land. No one was interested, he said. A good bit of the Woodbine land is swampy.

In the '90s, he decided to develop the portion that wasn't. Though he envisioned 22 lots, the Health Department had a problem with the hilly one, a back-and-forth battle that was delaying the rest of the subdivision.

Schroyer said he believed he could speed the other lots along by preserving the errant parcel, getting the problem fixed and ending its preservation. He insists he told county officials that was his intention but no one explained that preservation is permanent.

"They literally stole the lot from me," he said. "But I have a right to farm it. You can't get anyone to sow crops on it, so the only alternative is to put animals on it. If that's what they want, that's what I'll do."

David Dailey, president of the Walnut Springs Homeowners Association, said it's a bitter pill to help Schroyer get his way "when you've been treated as we've been treated." But residents have done what the man asked and have repeatedly called county planners and politicians.

They've been told - essentially - that policy-makers will let Schroyer build a house on the parcel when his incoming pigs fly.

`Allowed to do that'

The neighborhood also discovered that there's apparently not much anyone can do about the shed. Even the color is out of their control. The neighborhood covenants that keep them in line, down to how evenly they cut their grass, don't apply to that parcel. Schroyer excluded it.

"If he's going to put animals out there and go every day and take care of them ... he's allowed to do that," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county's planning director.

The livestock might pose a legal problem, though. County animal control regulations require shelter for livestock, and the shed can't be used for that purpose because - according to zoning law - it's too close to houses. Trees might work as shelter, but there are only a few by the road.

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