Tension over development of waterfront

ON THE BAY

Battle: A looming fight in eastern Baltimore County mirrors the constant tug-of-war between proponents of growth and those trying to preserve quality of life.

May 21, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IT'S A mellow, luminous evening in late April. Neighbors on the little Inverness peninsula in eastern Baltimore County crowd into Phyllis Bongiorno's sunroom overlooking the junction of Bear and Chink creeks.

It's no social gathering. A table is covered with maps and site plans for a developer's project the neighbors say will ruin their community.

"They'll have lawyers, so we have to have a strategy," says Marion Henley, a retired teacher from North Point Junior High who recognizes several former students in the room tonight.

"You can't just go to the meeting [the first of many Baltimore County will be holding on the project] and say, `I've lived here 30 years and I don't like this, " Henley tells his neighbors. "You need to be specific."

As developments go, this is no biggie. It's 13 to 15 homes in the $200,000 range, on about 5 acres of vacant land along Sandy Plains and Lynch roads.

It's no manicured park. The local name for it, "The Field," suits it fine.

And as Chesapeake waterfront goes, this working-class neighborhood, close to Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point mill and Baltimore's Back River Sewage Treatment Plant, will never compete with the grand estates of Talbot County, the show homes of Anne Arundel, or the vast marshscapes of Dorchester and Somerset.

But for decades, The Field has been playground, gathering spot and an all-too-scarce dab of greenery amid a densely populated area of brick rowhouses and former summer cottages that line the water.

And such modest places as this, which typify much of the eastern county waterfront, share the essentials that make the bay such a pleasure.

An afternoon in a kayak here passes quickly and pleasantly, poking into the numerous coves and creeks and inlets that give the 200-mile-long Chesapeake several thousand miles of shallow, productive tidal shoreline.

Local boaters say they catch white perch and rockfish, and some think if we restore the underwater grasses to the bay, they'll see good soft crabbing here again.

Back in Phyllis Bongiorno's sunroom, the group begins to create a list of concerns - sewage overflows, wetlands destruction, storm water flooding (some are still recovering from Tropical Storm Isabel). Children's safety is an issue, too - there's no place to park and traffic is a problem.

The developer proposes a community pier with a small parking lot. That'll be "party central," says one man. "More trash, more noise, public drinking," others chime in.

And the small development is just part of what's coming, others say. A proposal for another 47 upscale townhomes will soon be submitted to county planners for approval on the cove just a couple hundred yards away on the other side of the peninsula.

This in turn is just part of a development surge that is occurring all across eastern Baltimore County - million-dollar homes on Holly Neck peninsula, tourist hotels, shops and marinas on Middle River, and a $100 million senior citizens complex at the old Fort Howard Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Since 1995, more than $800 million in state, federal and local funds have gone into what one headline called the "new waterfront promised land."

And in the big picture, perhaps it is. Certainly the county's east side can benefit from such a renaissance, bringing new jobs and new life.

But just as surely, this "rebirth" will degrade the quality of life for many longtime residents. It is a classic tension across Maryland, the nation's fifth-most densely populated state: As governments continue to welcome and promote growth, what is the obligation to those already here?

Even at this, their first organizing meeting, some of the Inverness peninsula folks are thinking of fallback positions. "Can we really beat this development? What's the best we can bargain for?" said one woman.

Indeed, county planners say developer Jim Quillen, who bought The Field a year or two ago, has the zoning he needs to proceed, though he'll need to jump through other hoops to satisfy the county's environmental and public works permits.

Acquisition of the land by the county for a park is out, planners say. Maintaining such small parcels is inefficient.

I'm sure Quillen's Golden Mile development company is rightly betting buyers will flock to the new waterview, water-access homes they'll put in The Field.

I'm just as sure it will mean nothing good for those who live here now.

You can say, as the growth-is-good crowd often does, that the neighbors gathered tonight have got their piece of paradise and now want to shut the door.

It's a way of thinking that would have capsized Noah's Ark, installing cabins enough on deck to take four of every creature.

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