Removal of young trees outrages community

Saplings planted by children in Baltimore County removed at business owner's request

August 26, 2008|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,nick.madigan@baltsun.com

The field was dotted with newly planted maples, oaks and green ashes, the spindly saplings protected from intrusive deer by encircling plastic shafts and held in place by wooden stakes.

The almost 200 trees, set into the ground in April by a group of schoolchildren, were intended to stem the runoff of phosphorus and other pollutants into Loch Raven Reservoir, which borders the field in Baltimore County.

But Joe Bivona, owner of a restaurant nearby, decided that the trees would obstruct his view of the water. Bivona, who bought the Peerce's Plantation restaurant in Phoenix earlier this year for $1.6 million and renamed it Peerce's Landing, persuaded officials to have the trees removed. Within weeks, about 100 were pulled up and replanted elsewhere.

"It's just outrageous," said Mary Ambrose, a board member of the Long Green Valley Association, a residents group that advocates for the area's preservation. "He doesn't own the view. Besides, we're trying to beat it into children's heads that the environment is an important issue, they spend all day planting trees, and they come back and the trees are gone. So what do you tell the kids?"

Vanishing trees are not the only things bothering the residents. They contend that Bivona has tried to expand the restaurant without approval, and is planning to install a "sand mound" septic system that they say would be illegal under the property's dimensions.

Bivona said he is following procedures, is applying for zoning changes that would enable him to expand and has done nothing wrong. "It's just a shame that a small group of people want to put me out of business," he said of his critics. "They're not very nice people. If people are going to start harassing me, I'll get my lawyers involved."

Bivona, 52, told the Long Green Valley Association's board meeting July 15 that he had "called in a few favors" to have the trees removed from the field south of Peerce's Landing, according to minutes of the meeting and people who attended. Last week, Bivona denied he made the statement and called the accusation an "outright lie."

"I went through the proper channels," said Bivona, who owns a catering company in Annapolis that supplies meals to midshipmen at the Naval Academy. "I got passed around until I met some folks who could help me. I don't remember who they were. I just wanted a view."

Response to Bivona's request came from officials in Baltimore City, which owns the field. Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon, said Bivona "had a legitimate issue" and that, in exchange for getting the trees removed from the field, the restaurant owner had agreed to pay for trees to be planted elsewhere in the area.

"The view serves a business function and it's part of the reason he purchased that spot," Clifford said, alluding to Bivona's stated plans to host weddings at the site and use the reservoir as a backdrop for photos of newlyweds. Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, whose district includes Peerce's Landing, said planting the trees in the field was a good idea because "we've got a runoff problem" and because of damage caused by deer that eat seedlings. Removing the trees, he said, "was a horrible, environmentally unsound thing to do."

As for the residents' accusations that Bivona has violated zoning codes, McIntire suggested that unnamed officials were letting the matter slide. Although a county inspector issued a stop-work order June 26 against Bivona's construction of windows around a patio that have effectively increased his restaurant's floor space, other matters related to the business and its future were being ignored, he said, without giving specifics.

"I think a deal has been struck," McIntire said. "But I guarantee you that he'll be held accountable - not by the county, but by the Long Green Valley Association."

The group's secretary, Carol T. Trela, wrote in a letter to Dixon on Aug. 19 that she had heard Bivona claim that he had called in "a few favors." Trela wrote also that she and her colleagues were "concerned about the kind of message being sent to the young people who planted the trees," a reference to the young volunteers from the Rosedale Center, an alternative school that focuses on dropout prevention.

Charlie Conklin, a member of the Gunpowder Valley Conservancy said his organization had obtained the trees under an agreement with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and Constellation Energy, which paid for them as part of its role in the Department of Energy's carbon sequestration program.

He said the conservancy this spring arranged for the planting of the 200 trees near Peerce's and more than 1,000 elsewhere in the area.

"We've been planting with those kids for years," Conklin said. "They're probably going to be very disappointed."

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