Peaceful community may go to the birds

Balto. County bill proposes sanctuary


Just up the road from a Big Kmart-anchored strip mall in eastern Baltimore County sits a neighborhood of condominiums, with patches of trees and nearby woods. On a recent afternoon, a truck delivered UPS packages, and children with backpacks walked the sidewalks.

A peaceful suburban community, yes.

But a bird sanctuary?

That has been the reaction of some to a proposal to designate 24 acres in the Doncaster Village area of the county as such.

A County Council bill, up for a vote today, would restate the provisions of a federal law that sets fines for injuring or killing wild birds. It would also restore a designation that some in the Carney area say was wrongly rescinded. And it might, they hope, even set an obstacle to future development.

But one councilman is asking whether inspectors would be required to monitor the neighborhood for bird casualties. And even the local leader of the Maryland Ornithological Society is raising his eyebrows.

No one seems to claim that particularly rare species inhabit Doncaster Village in significant numbers. Still, Charles Rehm, who's leading the effort for sanctuary status, said he has spotted hawks, and even a bald eagle, in the area.

Driving his Chevrolet Camaro recently through the tiny community, Rehm stopped near a stand of trees and pointed out a female cardinal.

"Hundreds of thousands of birds will land for brief periods of time" in warmer seasons, Rehm said. "Songbirds that I've never seen before. When you look up, you see falcons, you see hawks."

"There's no cost to this," said Rehm, 57, a retired pretrial services officer with the U.S. District Court of Maryland. "It's not like I'm going to the County Council and saying, `Give me X millions of dollars.' What I'm talking about is common sense, so that future generations can hear the sound of songbirds."

Peter Webb, president of the Baltimore County chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society, reviewed a summary of the bill and said that its author's heart is in the right place. He also said, "My first impression is it's not a terribly well-thought-out piece of legislation."

"I never saw a bill like this," said County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina. "Just because a couple of birds build a nest in a tree doesn't mean it's a sanctuary. I mean, a sanctuary is a type of a place where species that don't have any other available areas can roost. ... Doncaster Village is a completely fragmented area that, I would say, most environmentalists and biologists would say doesn't serve as a bird sanctuary."

The area that would become a bird sanctuary includes a condominium community west of Bellbeck Road, just west of a similarly named apartment complex near Pine Grove Elementary School.

The story of how Doncaster Village initially became a bird sanctuary goes back to 1977. That's when Rehm scanned treetops outside his condo and spotted what he's sure was a bald eagle, according to a later news account in the Baltimore News American. A wooded area near the condo complex was identified by state officials as being in "pristine" condition - having remained unaltered by humans for the past 300 years, Rehm said.

Later, another portion of the area was developed, and Rehm began thinking of ways to protect the land.

In 1985, after much discussion and research, Rehm said, he and his neighbors persuaded the County Council to designate the area as a bird sanctuary, making it unlawful to kill or injure any wild birds in the protected area or to damage their nests. Violators faced a fine between $100 and $500.

It wasn't the county's only sanctuary. The area surrounding Robert E. Lee Park, off Falls Road north of Baltimore City, also had the designation.

But Rehm was dismayed to learn several years ago that the laws establishing both sanctuaries had been thrown out. County officials believe someone had determined that state and federal agencies were the appropriate regulators of the protection of birds. Federal law still provides for fines for killing wild birds.

"You have a self-interest as a citizen to keep these niches alive," said Rehm, who lives in a townhouse up the street from the Doncaster Village condos. He pointed to a stream on one side of the neighborhood and a farm on the other side, just beyond a tennis court.

He also noted that Loch Raven Reservoir is close by. He said the sanctuary designation could strengthen the community's chance of obtaining government grants for environmental restoration.

He's written to County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and to County Council members to have both sanctuaries redesignated.

County Councilmen T. Bryan McIntire and Kenneth N. Oliver have sponsored a bill to do just that.

Asked to explain the bill, McIntire, a north county Republican, said, "I just think it's a wholesome thing to have."

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