In their latest attempt to block an upscale housing development proposed for Holly Neck in eastern Baltimore County, opponents will try to push the issue to referendum next year -- a process that could stall the project's momentum as early as October.
Angry and frustrated at what they see as indifference from Baltimore County officials, the Holly Neck Conservation Association will begin collecting signatures this weekend at the Maryland State Fair and plans to expand the drive to public events throughout the area.
That strategy has a familiar ring. Three years ago, a grass-roots group on the county's east side led a successful fight against condemnation-for-redevelopment legislation known as Senate Bill 509.
The Holly Neck group hopes that its two allegations resonate throughout the county: that County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and the County Council have manipulated the zoning laws for a powerful developer, and that the building of 110 homes would harm the Chesapeake Bay.
"We are saying that if officials can change zoning classification in our area, they can do it anywhere else they please," said Barbara Byrnes, a Holly Neck resident and spokeswoman for the group of about 250 residents. "And we hope there are enough people concerned about the danger this development poses to the bay."
A spokesman for Smith said yesterday that the executive would have no comment on the referendum drive.
Dr. Leonard P. Berger, a retired Baltimore physician who lives in Ocean City and wants to build on the sparsely populated and picturesque woodland and farms surrounded by the bay, Middle River and two quiet coves, said he was disappointed by the group's latest move.
"I am disappointed to see that the Holly Neck Conservation Association is taking this path because I hoped we could work with them," Berger said yesterday from Ocean City, where he owns a hotel, condominiums and other property.
"They are a vocal minority, and we realize that there are a lot of residents on Holly Neck who want to work with us and feel our development will be a quality addition to their community."
Most of Berger's new development would be brick "villas" built in clusters of four or five dwellings. Berger's waterfront mansions will approach a $1 million price tag and be the high-end part of the east side's ambitious revitalization.
If the project is approved, Berger would raze 54 "shore shacks" that he owns on Holly Neck -- buildings that have leaking septic tanks. The peninsula could have public water and sewers by 2006.
Berger owns 155 acres there. He has sold hundreds of acres to the state and county, and those tracts are in a conservation trust.
But Berger still faces some hurdles.
The Baltimore County rezoning process begins next month, and because the land abuts the Chesapeake Bay, nothing can be built until Berger wins an approval from the state Critical Area Commission.
The project's opponents also face a daunting task.
To put the issue on the ballot for the 2004 election, opponents need to gather 27,939 signatures of registered county voters, which is a tenth of the total ballots cast for governor in the county in the last gubernatorial election.
They need to get 9,313 signatures by Sept. 22 -- 45 days after the County Council's passage of the Holly Neck bill. If they accomplish that, they have an additional 30 days -- until Oct. 22 -- to get the remaining 18,626.
If all those signatures are certified, the law allowing the project to go forward would be put on hold until voters have their say in the 2004 election. And if voters reject it, the law is history, like SB 509.
Byrnes said members of her group know they have lots of work ahead.
"We are going after signatures for our petitions wherever we legally can," she said, adding that the group has hired an attorney.
Signature collection sites could include the State Fair in Timonium, supermarkets, Orioles and Ravens games, county recreation activities, and perhaps churches.
"We know this is going to require massive amounts of manpower," Byrnes said. "And one of the first tasks we have to address is reproducing 40,000 sheets for the petitions."
Sun staff writer Andrew Green contributed to this article.