Neighborhood worries about development of pristine land

December 30, 2006|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun reporter

It's the kind of privately owned property you don't expect to find in Baltimore - not anymore, anyway.

And chances are you won't find it either - unless you happen to go looking for it.

Nestled near the northern edge of the city, between two narrow roads, it features a meandering stream and slopes that drop steeply in one direction while stands of trees rise just as sharply in the other.

Whether the stunning, 8 1/2 -acre parcel will be preserved or developed - and to what degree - has been a matter of keen interest and considerable angst to many residents of one of Baltimore's wealthiest areas since the longtime owner of the land died two years ago.

Compounding the community's consternation is the expiration in seven years of restrictions that have prevented development on an adjacent, 12-acre piece of land for more than four decades.

"Because we have lived with these two pieces of property totally undeveloped for so long, everybody's concerned with it," says Katherine Simpson, president of the North Roland Park Improvement Association, whose house abuts both parcels and sits on more than 3 acres.

"Obviously, keeping it in a pristine state would be the ideal. We know that's probably not going to happen. ... What we want to do is maintain the kind of neighborhood we have been used to living in."

Ede Chapman, co-executor and co-beneficiary of the estate of her late mother, Edith Hooker Ilmanen, says she understands the neighborhood's concern about the property - and shares it.

Six months ago, Chapman and her husband moved into a house owned by her late mother next to the 8 1/2 acres, a move that she said "put a face on [the community's] fear."

"We wanted to find out what could be done with the property and a much more important question - what should be done with it," she said.

Chapman acknowledges receiving inquiries about the property, but she says it has not been put up for sale and she has no timetable. Whatever decision is made must be joined by her brother, a math professor in Switzerland.

"You can't really expect or hope there isn't going to be some change," she said.

Both the estate of Edith Ilmanen and neighborhood residents are making preparations for the possibility of change, whether it comes through consensus or confrontation.

The estate has retained a prominent local planning and development consultant to help determine what to do with the property.

Many homeowners along West Saint Georges Road signed covenants this fall designed to limit access to - and hence development of - the Ilmanen estate property, according to Simpson.

One resident reportedly commissioned an engineering study to determine how much development the parcel could accommodate. Both the North Roland Park Improvement Association and the Poplar Hill Association have hired lawyers. So, too, have some of the residents. And some of the residents themselves are lawyers.

Among them is H. Morton Rosen, who also raises thoroughbred horses and has lived more than 30 years in a large stone mansion overlooking the land. The mansion, now assessed for nearly $900,000, was built around 1900 as a residence for Edith Ilmanen's parents.

Rosen says he made an offer to buy the property from the estate and put it permanently into a conservation easement. He won't disclose how much he offered for the land. But he says his offer was above the assessed value of $216,800 and less than what a developer might pay. He says his offer was rebuffed.

"I am frustrated," he said. "They've been investigating what to do with the property for I don't know how long. The whole neighborhood would like to preserve it. This is a unique area because you feel like you're in the country."

As surely as the stream runs through the property, so does a river of privilege - and the notion of preserving it - run through the story of what will become of the land.

Last year, the median sales price of a home in the North Roland Park/Poplar Hill area topped $500,000, according to Live Baltimore, a nonprofit that promotes home ownership in the city and tracks neighborhood property values. Many of the houses are on lots of an acre or more.

Along the stretch of West Saint Georges Road that leads to the estate property, many of the houses are imposing two-story structures framed by large trees, some set back from the road behind wood and stone fences, accessible by circular driveways.

Diane Caplin, president of the Poplar Hill Association and resident associate director of the Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women on Poplar Hill Road, said the organization initially wondered when it bought its property in the late 1990s whether it was appropriate to "be in this exclusive neighborhood."

"The people who live in this neighborhood are very committed to the city," Caplin said. "We need a diversity of neighborhoods in a city of neighborhoods. We need places where people who want to be in this kind of neighborhood can retreat to."

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