Balto. Co. asked to open land data

Bill due before council aims to give public notice of development waivers

September 19, 2005|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,Sun reporter

From the moment he heard that a developer wanted to build homes near Druid Ridge Cemetery in his Baltimore County neighborhood, Alan Zukerberg has done everything he could to derail the project, even sending county officials footage of flooded streets in his neighborhood.

But Zukerberg says the fight hasn't been a fair one, and he blames the county government.

He and his neighbors were surprised to learn two years ago that the county had granted permission for the developer to clear trees along the cemetery to make way for the homes.

Zukerberg said residents were never made aware of the approval, and thus had no chance to take the matter to the county Board of Appeals.

Such complaints have become more common, county councilmen say. Now, a bill before the County Council is designed to give the public more notice about decisions on developments.

The bill would require the county to post on the government Web site notices of requests for waivers from certain county requirements and the outcomes of those requests. The waivers could involve county rules on issues ranging from building height to how close a house can be built to a stream.

"You want folks to at least know what's going on in their community," said County Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat. "Even if they don't like what's happening, at least they have a chance to be heard."

Council members said more residents in recent years have complained of houses that are being built on land that they thought was off-limits to development.

Some residents in the Perry Hall area were caught off guard when they learned that the county had granted an exemption for a landowner to build a home closer to a stream, said County Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder.

Many decisions are made without public scrutiny because residents do not know they are even up for consideration, community activists say.

"If we're not searching the [county building] hallways on a daily basis or going to these different departments checking in almost daily, any number of these things can get right by you," said Sharon Rosen, president of the Dumbarton Improvement Association.

Donna Spicer peruses legal notices, sifts through public records and calls county officials to keep track of development proposals.

"You need someone to make a career of watching these things for your community," said Spicer, executive director of the Loch Raven Business Association and the Loch Raven Community Council. "This is a countywide problem."

The County Council is to discuss the bill, and possibly vote on it, next month. An earlier version was tabled this month when a county planning official said his department needed more time to study its potential impact.

`Minute changes'

The county receives hundreds of requests a month for land-use exemptions and variances, said David A.C. Carroll, director of the county Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management.

"They're usually minute changes: `Instead of a 30-foot setback, may I have a 20-foot setback from a forest?'" Carroll said.

If every decision were posted, Carroll said, his staff could be inundated by complaints on technical decisions that would not be up for appeal.

"Now we're going to have to start reviewing all the comments and going to have to start responding to all the comments," Carroll said.

The bill was drafted partly in response to complaints about the review of projects such as Druid Ridge Cemetery, which has been the subject of development plans for years.

Developer David S. Brown Enterprises wants to build 56 houses on 38 acres that the company is under contract to buy from Druid Ridge Cemetery's owner. The houses would be built in sets of two on a parcel next to Park Heights Avenue.

Some residents, including Zukerberg, president of the Long Meadow Association, were angry when they learned through a public information request that the county had granted permission for the removal of 4.5 acres of forest on the site.

They contend that removing the forest buffer in an area with drainage problems would subject a local stream to even more flooding.

But residents were told they missed the 30-day window to appeal the decision to the county Board of Appeals, Zukerberg said.

Their appeal is now before the Baltimore County Circuit Court, temporarily putting the development on hold.

Robert A. Hoffman, an attorney for the developer, said all county procedures have been followed. He disputed residents' claims that the homes would damage the environment.

"There were extensive requirements to provide remediation for the stream that's there in order to be able to" remove forest, Hoffman said.

Disclosure

Zukerberg, a retired lawyer who unsuccessfully ran for the state Senate as a Republican in 2002, said residents could exert more influence on community planning if they were more aware of development proposals.

He fears the disclosure bill before the County Council might not go far enough. Instead of notices of waivers simply being posted on a Web site, Zukerberg wants notices e-mailed to community leaders within five days of a filing and outcome.

County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz said the bill is a good first step and could be amended later if needed.

"There seems to be almost a distrust of government and of decisions that are perceived to be made behind closed doors," said Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat. "I don't think that's the reality.

"But," he added, "sometimes you have to do things in government to reassure people that government is operating openly and honestly."

Sun reporter Laura Barnhardt contributed to this article.

joshua.mitchell@baltsun.com

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