Construction stopped on homes near creek

County to determine if they're too close to water

March 29, 2006|By JOSH MITCHELL | JOSH MITCHELL,SUN REPORTER

On a small cul-de-sac about a mile southwest of White Marsh Mall, the wooden skeleton of a house under construction has sat untouched for weeks. Work on a neighboring house has gone no further than the concrete foundation. Plywood is stacked nearby.

County officials initially designated the site off-limits to construction, but later allowed building to begin. Now they've called a time-out on work there while they decide whether the houses - which come within 24 feet of a creek - have to be farther from the water.

"I've never before seen houses built that close next to a stream," said Baltimore County Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, who went to the area with measuring tape after nearby residents complained of the construction. "Just looking at it, anybody's first impression is there's something wrong with the permit process that was used in that case."

Residents ask why the homes were approved, when, they say, the county has turned down other requests in the area to build structures near the stream. And they have raised questions that involve a longtime county employee who recently left to work for a developer who obtained the building permits for the houses.

"We're not opposed to development in any way. If you've ridden through the area, in the past nine years I think they've put in something like 700 houses here," said Peggy Winchester, president of the South Perry Hall Community Association. "We just think ... everyone should be treated equal."

County officials say the county employee who recently left his job was not directly involved in the approval process, and that the properties were treated the same as any other.

The builder is awaiting word from the county.

"I've been doing this now for 16 years. This is the first time I've ever seen a county stop something and say, `Oh, the approvals we gave are wrong,'" said Dale Hevesy, vice president of Gemcraft Homes.

The dispute is playing out on a dead-end road off Perry Hall Boulevard. On one side of Shanti Lane are five new houses, valued in the $400,000s and up.

The confusion involves two lots on the other side of the street, near the banks of a small, nameless stream that was, on a recent afternoon, only a few inches deep. The stream feeds into White Marsh Run.

County officials hired engineers to determine the flood plain - the area around the creek that is prone to flooding-and a report was submitted this week. David L. Thomas, a public works official, said officials were analyzing it. Officials yesterday did not release the report.

If the homes are found to be in the flood plain, county officials could order them moved back, or require the developer to apply for "variances" from requirements.

Structures built close to a creek could affect animal habitats and cause erosion by covering land that carries rainwater into the stream, an environmental expert said last week.

A study from several years ago, using what county officials called "gross" estimates, outlined a flood plain 38 feet wide. That, along with open-land requirements, appeared to leave little room for homes on the two properties, which total a little less than 2 acres, officials said.

Residents said one homeowner on the street had been interested in buying the properties, but was told he probably would not be able to build on them.

A couple of years ago, the county allowed a developer to perform his own flood plain study. Such allowances are standard.

Then, developer Joseph M. Moran, who was under contract to buy the property, applied for and received a variance that effectively allowed homes closer to the stream, county development records show.

David A.C. Carroll, the county's environmental chief, said the county is required by law to consider variances in order to make a lot buildable. He also pointed out that the county required the landowner to plant vegetation along the stream.

Moran did not buy the properties. Gemcraft Homes paid him a fee for preparing the land for development, Hevesy said, and the company bought the lots for $200,000 each.

Attempts to obtain comment from Moran were unsuccessful.

James Barlow, who lives on the other side of the creek, said that when he was planning his house six years ago, he wanted to put a swimming pool in the backyard. But the county told him that he could not build anything within 60 feet of the stream, he said.

"When I saw those guys building up there [on Shanti Lane], it didn't make any sense," he said.

Last month, a meeting on the project at the White Marsh library drew about 35 residents, according to those were there. Several county development officials answered their questions.

A resident asked about Bruce Seeley, a senior environmental official with the county who supervised personnel who reviewed development plans. Residents were told that Seeley was leaving the county to work for a private company, according to Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, who attended the meeting.

Last month, Seeley left the county after 23 years to work for Moran's development company, Carroll said. Reached at Moran's company, Seeley said he was not directly involved in any decisions that affected the development plan for the lots. Carroll said the same thing.

Bartenfelder, the councilman, described the situation as "an issue of perception," adding: "With the way the whole project looked, it doesn't look like they [the houses] were built in line with what they would call normal procedure."

After the meeting at the library, county officials visited the stream and decided to perform their own study.

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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