Woodberry frustrated after Loyola College improperly fells trees for construction project

That helpless feeling

August 21, 2007|By Alia Malik | Alia Malik,Sun reporter

For years, Woodberry activists fought Loyola College's plan to cut down a large swath of forest near their neighborhood and build a sports complex in its place. After Loyola agreed to preserve the best half of the forest - a mix of old beech, ash, oak ironwood and hawthorn trees - the college and community reached an agreement and the building began.

But in February, Loyola cut an extra 50,000 square feet of dense woods. Now old fears and animosities have been rekindled in a community that feels powerless to stop wealthy, large-scale developers and believes that city regulations can do little to help them.

Jan Danforth, 56, a Woodberry resident who has been the leading voice against Loyola for nearly a decade, stood at the fence surrounding the shorn hill in question one recent morning. She watched a bulldozer circle the mound of sediment where the trees had been, and to her dismay, the driver threw trash out of the window.

She sighed. "Is this Woodberry anymore?"

The development plans the city approved five years ago indicate that at least some of the trees on the hill were to be preserved. But when Loyola finally applied for a permit last year to prepare the land for development, the line indicating what area was supposed to be saved had been changed on the map, said city environmental planner Gary Letteron, who checked the permit application for compliance with city conservation laws.

Letteron, who was new to the project, said he did not notice the change to the map and approved the permit, even though the change did not reflect the agreement that had been reached between the college and the community.

"That line was a minuscule line on a paper, but in the field, it's devastating," he said, adding that he does not believe the college planned to violate conservation laws. The protected trees came down in December or January, along with 19 acres of forest approved for cutting, Letteron said.

Danforth said she first noticed the problem in February while standing on the doorstep of a nearby house, passing out fliers for a meeting of the Woodberry Land Trust, which she co-founded with the aim of maintaining and trying to protect the remaining forest.

She saw a sea of bare branches and got a clear view of the uncovered hillside. "The neighbor was standing there, taking the flier, and I went, `That's wrong, that's wrong, that's really wrong,'" she said.

Danforth contacted the Planning Department, which fined Loyola $30,000 for violating the forest conservation plan and ordered the college to replant the area.

The college paid the fine but has not begun to replant the area. Typically, replanting does not occur until the end of a construction project, Letteron said, and given the current drought, he has discouraged the college from replanting until October.

"I don't think they could get enough water onto anything they're planting to make it survive," he said.

In a statement e-mailed to The Sun, Loyola spokeswoman Courtney Jolley said the land "had been disturbed inadvertently."

"Loyola is now in the process of working with the city to finalize and implement a reforestation plan for the affected area," the statement said. Jolley declined to elaborate further. It has not been determined how the mistake on the map appeared.

The trees were cut so that the hill could be re-engineered and stabilized to support a nearby parking lot, said Anne Gleeson, the landscape architect who helped the college determine which parts of the forest to save. Much of the land is unstable for building because it used to be a landfill, she said.

For Loyola to legally remove those trees, the college would have had to amend its plans through the City Council, a process which would have included a public hearing.

"I think, in general, the city has to watch stuff a little closer and not let stuff like this happen," said Tracey Brown, vice president of Concerned Citizens of Woodberry, the community association. "I think a lot of developers are saying, `You know, if we get started, the city isn't going to make this stop.'"

The community has long wanted Loyola to be more forthcoming about its plans and more concerned about the environment, but many feel there is little they can do, said Eric Glasior, the community association's treasurer.

"We're a really small community, and so we don't have the financial resources to get any action on that," he said.

Danforth said that feeling of helplessness is not new, recalling how attempts to fight the development came down to resignation and compromise years ago.

"Usually Loyola gets what it wants," she said.

Councilwoman Belinda K. Conaway, who represents most of Woodberry, said the tree-cutting incident came up at a recent association meeting as an example of how voiceless her constituents feel. But much of Woodberry is not involved in community issues, she said.

"There are a lot of wonderful things that a small community organization can do, but they certainly need the strength of the whole community to fight issues of this magnitude," Conaway said.

Cases where developers get permits that contradict their city-approved plans are rare, Letteron said. But in her district, developers are known for cutting corners in many ways, Conaway said.

"Sometimes people call you, and you hope and pray to God that what they're saying is not accurate, only to find out when you go to see it for yourself," she said. "If no one watches or no one complains, it's very easy for them to keep doing what they're going to do."

alia.malik@baltsun.com

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