Quiet community divided over development plans

Residents of peninsula debate project's impact

July 24, 2005|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Along a quiet, two-lane road that winds toward Chesapeake Bay, Marsha and Michael Dalton savor life in a picturesque setting: Their remodeled home overlooks a creek with small farms scattered amid woodland.

Across the road in the eastern Baltimore County community of Holly Neck, Neil and Beverly Schmidt relax on their screened-in front porch and watch Middle River roll by on a lazy summer afternoon.

Against this placid backdrop, the couples are on opposite sides of a long-simmering dispute that has residents of the peninsula in two distinct camps.

Developer Leonard P. Berger wants to build 110 homes - 12 mansions that will sell for $1 million each and 98 villas that will be built in small clusters on 153 acres of Holly Neck.

In a community where osprey nest atop a telephone pole and deer run free, some express concerns about Berger's development. Residents worry about too many houses being built on Holly Neck, the potential harm to the bay and the prospect that the country road feeding the peninsula might become congested.

"We are in this for the long haul," said Marsha Dalton, treasurer for the Holly Neck Conservation Association, referring to the group's opposition to Berger's plan. She said the association is asking Berger to drop the number of housing units to fewer than 90.

From her deck, Dalton can see where Berger's homes will be built, several hundred yards away on part of Berger's land that sweeps around the lower peninsula, which resembles the shape of a boot. "It's not that we are against development, it's the density that concerns us," she said.

Neil Schmidt, who like his neighbor Michael Dalton is retired from the city Fire Department, belongs to a group that embraces Berger's plan.

"Look what's happened to the east side over the last five years - it is booming," said Schmidt. "Part of our house dates to 1919 and no one appreciates history more than I do. But the development won't spoil the rural character of Holly Neck and the road can be improved. These are not shabby places that will be built. They are classy."

Berger, who said he has tried to work with residents, now says the approval process for his development "will be a marathon, not a sprint."

The process is winding through county and state planning and environmental hearings. Opponents have attended nearly every hearing and County Council meeting to fight Berger's proposal.

"We could have this plan completed in a matter of months, but because of the opposition and anticipated appeals, it could take years," Berger said. "We have had four lawyers at some of these meetings. We've re-engineered some of the plans. It has been costly to us."

The Holly Neck impasse is in sharp contrast to the county's new charrette process that fast-tracks development with residents helping design a new community, as recently happened at the site of the former Kingsley Park apartments in Essex. Berger said he is too far along the developmental process to start over with a charrette and he said that dropping the number of units below 110 is "not economically feasible."

Paul G. Miller, a member of the county Planning Board, wishes the Holly Neck project weren't so contentious.

Both sides, he said, "have high-powered lawyers, and that lengthens the time this issue could be resolved. Each side is not far apart, but it appears the battle will go on."

For more than 25 years, residents along the larger Back River Neck Peninsula have fought a number of Berger's plans for his land, which once totaled 605 acres. He began acquiring the land in 1972 with several partners, Berger said, with him remaining the controlling interest.

A string of proposals included a golf course, marina, hotel, a facility for seniors and hundreds of housing units. Another idea of Berger's was to blend a hotel with a marina and conference center for what he called his one-time dream, the "Harborplace of Baltimore County."

Opponents said they rose up because they feared the creation of "White Marsh South."

Ronald Belbot, president of the Holly Neck association, said that the Berger development would improve the tax base and give the area added political muscle. But the bad outweighs the good, he said.

"There is more land that could be developed, about 350 acres owned by farmers on the peninsula," said Belbot who lives six houses from Schmidt. "We want to minimize development as much as we can," he said, adding that opponents would continue their fight at the state level.

Obviously, he said, the association can go just so far. "We are not a bottomless pit when it comes to money" to support their opposition.

One official familiar with the history of Holly Neck sees the impasse coming to an end sooner rather than later.

"We've arrived at a seminal point in the Holly Neck story," said Arnold F. "Pat" Keller, the county's director of planning. "We've seen ideas of a huge magnitude reduced to something that many feel is a development of substance that won't leave a massive footprint on the peninsula."

Within the past several years, Berger has sold more than 450 acres on Holly Neck to BGE and county and state governments for about $4 million - land that was placed in conservancy for mitigation, partly for the building of Route 43. He's also built a $1 million revetment on the bay-front portion of his property to improve water conditions.

"It seems both parties have to agree on how quickly this will proceed," said Keller. "This can be reconciled, but somebody has to blink. Somebody has to genuflect."

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