Neighbors win battle against trucking firm

Court rules company cannot use Arbutus site

March 17, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,sun reporter

Lorna Rudnikas was looking for a little relief from the diesel fumes and noisy trucks threatening to get closer to her and her neighbors' bedroom windows.

Now, her community in southwestern Baltimore County might not have to contend with the nearby trucking business at all.

If a recent ruling by a Baltimore County judge stands, the company will not be allowed to operate next to the Bloomfield neighborhood, a small enclave near Arbutus abutting the city line.

Circuit Judge Ruth A. Jakubowski's wrote in her opinion that New England Motor Freight Corp. should not have been allowed to open there in the first place because the county has zoning laws that keep such businesses from locating close to homes.

An appeal is likely in the legal battle that began three years ago. Still, J. Carroll Holzer, the lawyer for the community, says that all neighborhood groups should be encouraged by the court victory.

"It shows that you can fight City Hall, that you can prevail," he said.

Bloomfield residents weren't immediately distressed when New England Motor Freight opened at the 17-acre site, according to Rudnikas and others.

Wilson Freight Forwarding had been the community's next-door neighbor from the 1960s until the trucking company went bankrupt in 1980, according to court papers. It had been allowed to continue operations even after 1976, when the county passed zoning regulations requiring such companies to be at least 300 feet from homes, because it had already been in operation, the court records show.

The property was abandoned by another company in 1988 until NEMF, a New Jersey-based company, took over in 1991, according to the court papers.

In 2004, a zoning commissioner granted the company's request to amend a previous expansion plan and accommodate 300 trucks - up from about 70 - and increase trailers parked on the site from 131 to 260.

Although county officials had tried to broker a compromise between residents and the company, those talks failed.

Rudnikas, who helped organize the Greater Bloomfield Community Association, began raising money for legal expenses, largely through bake sales and community events such as crab feasts and 1950s dances. An administrator who retired from the University of Maryland in Baltimore, Rudnikas has lived in the neighborhood since 1954.

Rudnikas, 66, also found several expert witnesses, including a state environmental official and a Johns Hopkins University professor, to testify on behalf of the neighborhood, according to Holzer.

In 2005, the county's Board of Appeals heard the arguments.

An attorney for the trucking firm said the company complies with emissions regulations and has not been cited for violations of county noise laws.

With water records showing the property wasn't used for several years, Holzer argued that the zoning law dictated that the property could no longer be used by a trucking facility.

In March 2006, the board, in its second attempt to reach a decision, concluded that the company should not be allowed to expand.

The company filed an appeal to the Circuit Court. The community group also asked the court to review the legal basis of the board's decision.

In her ruling, Jakubowski said that the trucking company not only should not be allowed to expand, it should not have been allowed to open there in the first place.

The company has 30 days to appeal the March 7 decision.

Still, Holzer said the court decision is clearly a win for the little guy.

"It shows that one person can make a difference," said Holzer.

Bruce Blakeman, general counsel for NEMF's parent company, the Shevell Group, said this week that an appeal is "highly probable."

"Obviously, we disagree with the decision," he said.

By Jakubowski's order, the county's Board of Appeals is to amend its findings in accordance with her opinion.

If the case is not appealed or if the Court of Special Appeals upholds the decision, the county's law office would file an injunction to enforce Jakubowski's ruling to shut the business, said Timothy M. Kotroco, head of the county's Department of Permits and Development Management.

But at this point, he said, "It's just Round 3."

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