Fence makes angry neighbor

Court gives ruling in dispute between Parkville couple and business, but no closure

February 26, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Sun Reporter

The fence is, at least by appearance, unremarkable. It's just a 6-foot-tall construction of plain wooden boards, running between a garden center and one Baltimore County backyard.

But it has been the subject of more than 500 pages of correspondence and legal filings, a half-dozen government hearings and three court rulings - all part of a conflict that after more than a decade remains unsettled.

"It still hasn't been resolved?" Baltimore County Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, one of the first county officials involved in the conflict, asked last week when told that the matter was still in dispute.

Put simply, the clash centers on the location of the fence. Parkville homeowner Ruth Baisden says it should be 10 feet farther away from her house. The owner of Poor Boys Garden Center & Gifts, Terry Gerahty, says he should not have been required to put up the fence at all.

Maryland's second-highest court recently ruled in favor of Baisden and her husband. But what happens next is still up in the air because the landscape near the fence has changed.

In the written Court of Special Appeals ruling, Judge Charles E. Moylan Jr. wondered how a few pieces of wood could cause so much trouble, consume so many years and involve so many government officials. "How," he asked, "did all this confusion come about?"

The trouble began shortly after Gerahty bought a 2-acre wooded parcel at Old Harford Road and Taylor Avenue and requested that it be given a new zoning designation in 1996. Ruth and Ernest Baisden were opposed to a business moving onto the heavily wooded lot next to their four-bedroom house on Oak Avenue.

Knowing of the neighbors' concerns, Bartenfelder, the councilman who then represented the area, struck a compromise: He would approve the zoning if Gerahty guaranteed that the land wouldn't be used for anything other than a garden center.

The agreement also reserved a 70-foot strip of open space along the Oak Avenue side of the property, where trees would be planted to screen the business from nearby houses.

Part of the problem, according to Gerahty, is that the October 1996 agreement between him and a local civic association doesn't specifically call for a fence.

The councilman and the neighbors did, though. And in December 1996, the county's landscape architect determined that Gerahty should build a fence. It should be 6 feet high, with an additional 2 feet of lattice work closest to the Baisdens, and 4 feet high closest to Taylor Avenue, he said.

After one zoning hearing, Gerahty met with several top aides to then-County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger in 1997. They said Gerahty should install a fence 60 feet from Oak Avenue. And he did.

"We weren't cavalier in our attitude," he says. "I thought we had every `i' dotted and every `t' crossed."

The Baisdens argue that the fence is 10 feet closer to their house than the county landscape architect had said it should be. And it doesn't have the lattice top.

The additional distance might keep her and husband from being awakened by the sounds of the trash container being emptied in the morning, Baisden says. And the additional height would screen some of the garden center's inventory from her family's view, she says.

By the end of 2004, the case had been reviewed multiple times by zoning officials, the Board of Appeals and a Circuit Court judge.

Circuit Judge Robert N. Dugan twice ruled that the fence should be moved back. His 2005 order was appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. A panel of three judges heard the case in September.

Last month, the court issued an opinion that criticized various Baltimore County officials for their decisions and interpretations of law, and essentially upheld Dugan's decision.

"It has now been 10 years," wrote Moylan. "It is time for compliance."

Fair enough, says Gerahty, adding that he has no plans to appeal.

"I don't agree, but I respect the decision and will do whatever the county asks us to do," he says. "I just want to get this behind us."

But there is still a decision to be made.

In the midst of the legal battle, county officials allowed Gerahty to create a paved parking lot. Because of grading done as part of the project, a retaining wall was built, and now the 70-foot buffer line is on ground 4 feet lower than it was in 1996, according to Gerahty.

County officials and Gerahty knew when the parking lot was paved and retaining wall built that the fence could still be ordered moved, says Baisden.

To determine the best location for the fence, the head of the county's Department of Permits and Development Management plans to meet with both sides in front of the long-disputed fence.

Baisden says the court ruling teaches a timely lesson.

The county will start the process of reviewing its zoning maps in August - the very kind of review that set in motion the battle that has cost her and Gerahty upward of $50,000 in legal expenses.

"Communities are always promised things during rezoning," Baisden says. "But the burden falls upon the community to make sure they're followed through. The council members need to know that."

And if nothing else, the case illustrates how a seemingly mundane land-use decision affects real people, says Baisden.

"It's amazing," she says, "how zoning decisions change your surroundings, your property values and your quality of life."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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