Council OKs deal to protect Towson land

Club to get $2 million for 25-year building ban

October 17, 2006|By Josh Mitchell and Laura Barnhardt | Josh Mitchell and Laura Barnhardt,SUN REPORTERS

For the first time, the Baltimore County government will pay taxpayers' money to a private country club to restrict development on its land, under a deal approved last night by the County Council.

The government will pay $2 million to the Country Club of Maryland in Towson. In return, the club agrees to keep 143 acres off limits to development for 25 years. The club will also give the county 45 acres if it ever goes out of business.

The agreement, approved by a 5-2 vote, ends a long standoff between the country club and the surrounding community over plans to develop a part of the property. It allows the club to move ahead with plans to build 36 semidetached houses on 14 acres on Stevenson Lane -- fewer than the 56 homes originally planned.

County government officials called the expenditure unprecedented, but upheld it as a way to protect open space.

"This is all about protection of our urban areas," said Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr., adding that "green space" is limited in those areas. "The folks who live in the area have become accustomed to that 150 acres being in the middle of their community. It's an asset."

Troubling precedent?

But several council members voiced concerns last night that the deal could set a precedent. They warned of creating expectations for using county money to restrict unpopular developments in the future.

Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican who along with Randallstown Democrat Kenneth N. Oliver voted against the deal, said county officials should feel "shame" for making the deal without a policy in place.

Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz said administration officials resolved his concerns by characterizing the circumstances of the deal as rare enough to not create expectations for many future deals.

"If this is what the administration believes is appropriate, and if the policy is tight enough so that it doesn't open Pandora's box, then this is what the executive wants to do," said Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat.

The government will require the country club to spend more than $1 million on environmental work, including stream restoration, Mohler said.

History of interest

Baltimore County officials have a long history of interest in the Country Club of Maryland's property. In 1999, the county Revenue Authority approached club members about buying the golf course and turning it into a public course, according to news reports.

The county had been in talks with club members about buying the development rights for more than five years, said Lawrence E. Schmidt, who is a lawyer for the club and a former Baltimore County zoning commissioner.

Last year, Baltimore County offered $2 million to the club for the development rights on 90 of the club's 157 acres and as much as $250,000 toward its stream restoration project.

Schmidt said it is not unusual for the county to pay for private stream restoration. "The county has wanted to have the Herring Run restored, really because upstream development has caused the erosion," Schmidt said.

Schmidt also pointed to a long-standing program in the county and in the state to purchase development rights to farms to ensure that the area remains used for agriculture. "Obviously you won't find a farm in the middle of Towson," he said, but added, "The principle is very much the same."

J. Carroll Holzer, the attorney representing residents in the nearby Idlewylde community, also said he hadn't seen the county buy the development rights on a property such as the Country Club of Maryland in his decades of representing neighborhoods fighting developments.

"It's certainly unusual to have the county participate in something like this," Holzer said. "But you'd like to see the county do more to be proactive in preserving land."

From the county's perspective, Holzer said, it is paying less now for the land than it would have to pay in the future.

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, whose district includes the country club, pointed out that the deal effectively reduced the club's original plans to build 56 semidetached houses.

"I don't think there was any alternative," said Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat. "It was either to allow the development to go forward as is and have the potential for significant amount of development in the future, or to come up with something innovative."

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