Local voices argue bills

Residents speak out about homes, speed cameras

December 02, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Howard County's state legislators are pondering emotional appeals from homeowners at both ends of the economic spectrum as mobile home park residents along U.S. 1 organize to prevent displacement while upscale western county seniors beset with sewage problems seek protections for future projects.

The homeowners turned out at an Ellicott City hearing held by legislators Thursday night, as did advocates and critics of using cameras to catch speeding motorists. They previewed some of the arguments the county's eight delegates and three state senators will consider before voting on local legislation in the 90-day General Assembly session that begins in January.

Supported by about 20 members of PATH - People Acting Together In Howard, a church- and community-based civic action group - mobile home park residents voiced support for a bill sponsored by most of the Democrats in the delegation that would give the residents a better chance to buy the land under their houses if a park owner decides to sell for redevelopment.

"There's an imbalance of property rights between the owners of mobile home parks and the residents. This legislation gives homeowners a better chance to save their homes," said Wendell Thompson, a PATH member from Bethany United Methodist Church. As county land values have risen, several parks along U.S. 1 have closed, displacing residents who owned their units but rented the land the units sat on.

"Do you know who we are, or how we affect your lives? Our neighborhoods are disappearing, but we won't, will we?" said Stacey Moran, a resident of Deep Run Mobile Home Park. There are few, if any, places in the county to put more mobile homes. Also, the units are expensive to move, and some are too old to relocate. Many mobile home residents are low-income, and many are elderly or disabled, the legislators heard.

"Where will we go? That is a question that scares all of us," Moran said.

Two other bills sponsored by Del. Warren E. Miller, a Republican, seek to prevent the kind of sewage nightmare that residents of the upscale Villas of Cattail Creek in Glenwood are facing.

Their homes in the county's most expensive ZIP code have no functioning sewer system, and waste must be pumped out and hauled away by truck three to five times a day. Developer Donald Reuwer is supposed to replace the system under an agreement with state health authorities, but residents said they have seen no progress yet.

The proposed legislation would have county government, rather than the state, regulate multiuse septic systems like Cattail's, and require developers to provide a performance bond to pay for repairs if such systems fail.

"I'm ashamed of the local county government," said Denise Eden, a Cattail resident, who with others complained that neither county nor state government has forced a solution to the situation, which will begin its fifth year in January. Several residents said they want to move but can't find buyers until the sewage problem is resolved.

County government spokesman Kevin Enright said Friday that county officials are reviewing site plan revisions for the new sewage system, following a state environmental review. A county consumer protection investigation was begun several months ago, Enright said, but it's not clear yet what will result from that.

Residents were divided on a bill sponsored by Sen. James N. Robey, a Democrat, that would allow Howard County police to install speed cameras on any county road with a speed limit of 45 mph or less. Motorists whose cars are found by the camera to be speeding would pay a $75 fine, but get no points on their licenses.

A statewide bill to allow the cameras is also likely to be introduced during the General Assembly session, said Del. James E. Malone Jr. Montgomery County already has speed cameras, though a statewide bill approved by the General Assembly in 2003 was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Robey's bill was supported by county police Chief William McMahon, who said speeding complaints are the most common he hears and that county police are too busy to provide comprehensive enforcement. Since the death of Cpl. Scott Wheeler in June, the county has suspended the practice of officers stepping out into traffic to stop speeders, as Wheeler did when he was hit.

"Our officers are pulled in so many directions, [speed] enforcement is diminishing," McMahon testified at the hearing.

Donna Stecker of Mount Airy said she insists on driving the speed limit.

"It's hard for me to drive down my road at 30 mph," she said, because other motorists "blow their horns, finger me and tailgate. I take a stand. They're not going to control my accelerator."

But Mark McPherson of Ellicott City told the legislators that speed cameras "could be an infringement on free travel and almost presumes guilt." He worried that use of cameras will expand and "be more invasive." If cameras are allowed, their locations should be announced, he suggested.

Ted Giovani of Highland said the fines would be too high, and the cameras provide a "perverse incentive" to a contractor operating the cameras. Arvil Daniele suggested vehicles be equipped with speed governors that would restrict top speeds.

Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat, also expressed doubts.

"Some people see this as a revenue-raising tool," he said, though McMahon pointed out that a conventional speeding ticket ranges in cost from $80 to $160, depending on speed. His interest is public safety, he said, not revenue.

Robey, a former county police chief, said a camera is less intrusive than an officer peering into a motorist's car after a stop, and added that cameras would not be on every county road, but only in places where complaints or accident records indicate a problem.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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