Undaunted by repeated rejections by the county executive and a strong community backlash, an eastern Baltimore County legislator continues to press for a plan to allow private developers to construct housing on a 52-acre site where a public park is planned.
In his latest effort, Del. Richard K. Impallaria, a Republican representing the 7th District, sought legal guidance from the state attorney general on his proposal to build houses at the former site of the Villages of Tall Trees, a troubled, World War II-era apartment complex demolished last year.
Last week, the attorney general's office responded: The county government could - if it desired - build additional homes at the Tall Trees tract along Old Eastern Avenue.
But if that was good news to Impallaria, last week, County Executive James T. Smith Jr. gave the delegate from Essex/Middle River bad news - Smith said he would stick with forceful community sentiment and build the park.
It was Smith's second refusal to reconsider plans for the site, which lies between two housing developments under construction - Hopewell Pointe and Waterview - which are part of a county-led effort to revitalize the Middle River/Essex area.
"I made my position pretty clear at that meeting last week," Smith said. "We are committed to the Villages of Tall Trees park, and it will be magnificent."
The issue has caused a fissure within the 7th District delegation. While Republican Del. Patrick L. McDonough continues to support Impallaria, Del. J.B. Jennings, also a Republican, has withdrawn his support and wants to maintain plans for the park. Sen. Andrew P. Harris, while originally backing Impallaria's housing plan, said community support for the park should prevail.
In her advisory to Impallaria last week, Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe wrote "it is my view that the County could legally make the park property available for residential development." A copy of the letter was obtained May 30.
Last month, The Sun reported Impallaria's intent to push private development of Tall Trees in a letter - signed by the 7th District delegation - to Smith. Impallaria said he initiated the letter.
But the proposal to build houses where community groups and residents want a park sparked protests on the east side.
In addition to housing, Impallaria said he wanted an ice hockey rink built there because unnamed constituents were concerned about security in a new public park.
As protests increased against his initiative, Impallaria blamed the media for miscasting his intent.
Jennings said he changed his mind after hearing protests from east-side residents and community groups and after having a better understanding of his colleague's proposal.
"I want a park, and I do not want development," said Jennings, a farmer and pilot. "I originally signed the letter because constituents were worried about security and somehow thought some housing stock would address whatever concerns there might have been."
Jennings said he did not know who those constituents are. Impallaria would not identify them.
Harris, a Republican, said he was not aware of the community-based input for the park and recent backlash against Impallaria's development idea.
"If it turns out the community truly wants a park," Harris said, "then it should be a park."
Tall Trees was razed after deteriorating into a dilapidated public housing facility that was troubled by drug dealing and violent crime. The county spent at least $25 million to relocate residents, demolish the buildings and grade the expansive tract with trees that are at least 75 years old.
Harris said the intent of Impallaria's letter "was to ask the community what they want to do with the Tall Trees site. ... It is something that should not be decided in Towson or Annapolis."
But Robert J. Barrett, director of the county Department of Recreation and Parks, said the decision to build a park "had the cooperation and participation from the community at the very beginning." Bike and walking paths, picnic areas and playgrounds were among the features residents want in the park.
Barrett said, "I told Impallaria that Tall Trees has always been intended for a community-active park.
"That decision was reached with the full cooperation and participation of individual citizens and community groups. It was not a declaration by the county," he said.
Furthermore, Barrett said, to build housing on the Tall Trees tract "would squander $25 million of the taxpayers' money. ... Essentially, it would have been a publicly financed demolition to allow a private developer to come in and build homes."