Residents decry Keswick deal

Hundreds hear angry criticism of club's plan to sell Roland Park parcel

July 02, 2008|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun reporter

About 400 Roland Park residents overflowed St. David's Church and spilled onto the sidewalk last night at a meeting that organizers called to gauge interest in the Baltimore Country Club's proposed sale of 17 prime acres of green space.

Neighborhood residents spoke overwhelmingly against a plan that calls for the club to sell part of its property to the Keswick Multi-Care Center, which has agreed to purchase the land for $12.5 million.

Since the deal was disclosed last month, Roland Park organizers have protested outside the club, collected hundreds of signatures from residents opposing the deal and held a door-to-door campaign informing them of the proposal.

Last night was the first time the Roland Park Civic League has addressed residents in an open forum about the issue, and its president said the meeting set an attendance record. Representatives from the country club and Keswick attended.

"There is a lot of emotion surrounding this," said Phil Spevak, who became president about three weeks ago.

Residents acknowledge that the club has the right to sell, but they say doing so would sever a century-old tie among the club, the community and the land.

Dozens of Roland Park residents spoke angrily against what they said would be the loss of trees and open space if the proposal to sell the land north of Hillside Road goes through.

Sally Foster said she has lived in the neighborhood since 1952 and has memories of sledding at the site. "Once you build something, you can't go back to the green space and you lose something," she said.

"There is a cost to developing undeveloped land," said resident Kirsten Day. "We do not need more development, and this would be true if we were talking about West Baltimore or East Baltimore."

Keswick officials have pledged to keep seven acres open and available for the community, but some residents say that is not enough.

The $195 million facility would have 225 independent-living units, 58 assisted-living units, 40 beds for residents in need of skilled nursing, would employ about 150 and include a 403-space underground parking garage.

Roland Park residents say the facility would increase traffic.

Details were worked out without community input, said representatives from the Roland Park Civic League.

But Timothy D.A. Chriss, representing the Baltimore County Club, told the crowd that club board members attempted to engage Roland Park leaders in a discussion about the property in April 2007, but nothing came of the talks.

Chriss said neighborhood leaders were told that the club was engaged in talks to sell the land. He said the club was willing at the time to listen to offers for the property but never received any.

"We told them, if you have interest, please put together a proposal and we would review it," Chriss said.

But David F. Tufaro, a Roland Park resident and member of the state school board, told the audience that neighborhood leaders through the years have submitted three proposals to buy the land, the most recent in 2003 for $4.5 million in a joint proposal with Roland Park Country School and Friends School of Baltimore.

Tufaro said the club never responded to the offers.

Keswick's proposal requires approval by two-thirds of the club's 2,000 voting members, with a vote set for July 14.

On Monday, about 30 Roland Park residents protested outside the Baltimore Country Club, waving signs encouraging club members to vote down the proposal as they went to a meeting.

If club members approve the sale, the City Council would need to take up a request to rezone the property to accommodate the retirement community. Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in 2010 if the sale goes forward and the city approves the plan.

Neighborhood leaders said they did not understand why the community was not engaged about the plans before the club signed a deal with Keswick.

Chriss told the audience, "We didn't think it would be prudent to have both the vote of the membership and dialogue with the community occurring simultaneously. If it goes forward, we will openly and enthusiastically share those plans and dialogue with you."

Several state legislators and City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton attended the meeting.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg lauded the turnout and said, "This makes the point that this is valuable, sacred land that needs to be preserved. You have our pledge ... that we'll work with you to protect this land."

Del. Jill P. Carter and state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden also spoke in favor of the community's wishes.

Keswick officials have said they intend to add gardens and courtyards and plant trees while not removing mature trees. They said they expect the development to become part of the neighborhood, an institution that will enable residents to stay in Roland Park as they grow older and in need of assistance.

The idea was seconded last night by Mark Erickson, one of the few Roland Park residents who spoke in favor of the plan.

"I think there is a need for senior housing in our neighborhood," Erickson said. "We have a remarkable opportunity to partner with a leader in elderly care. I ask that we look at this with an open mind."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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