Appeals court rules against rubble landfill near Havre de Grace

20-year fight brought black, white communities together

March 12, 2010|By Arthur Hirsch and Jonathan Pitts | Baltimore Sun reporters

In the more than two decades since the fight against a proposed rubble landfill outside Havre de Grace began, some of the most active opponents have died and others have moved, but those who remain in a historic black community are celebrating as the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled Thursday against the project.

"Fantastic," said Dolores Walke, who has been near the center of the struggle against Maryland Reclamation Associates Inc., and at one point was among four residents sued by the company for millions of dollars. "This has been just 21 years of an emotional roller coaster."

She and her husband are among about 250 white and black families who live within a half-mile of the proposed 55-acre site off Gravel Hill Road, just west of Interstate 95. Established by emancipated slaves in the 19th century, the settlement's key landmark is the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the graveyard contains remains of several black veterans of the Civil War.

The court ruling is "the best news we've heard in a long time," said Winifred Jonas, another active opponent. "We fought this for 20 years."

In a community where whites and blacks seldom got past pleasantries, neighbors joined forces to challenge the project, arguing that it would bring noise and dirt within yards of the church door and pose a hazard to their wells, their sole drinking water supply.

"They never thought the white people would stand with the black people," said Jonas, of Paradise Road, a white woman in her mid-80s who grew up in North Carolina and moved to Harford County to work at Aberdeen Proving Ground soon after World War II.

For a civil rights lawyer such as Sherrilyn Ifill, who represented the residents pro bono, the case has been encouraging.

"I've been very impressed with the way people have worked together across racial lines," said Ifill, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who has pursued the case since 1994. She said the lawyers in the case acted as assistants to the residents, who she said put in countless hours compiling documents, meeting with local officials and attending many hearings.

Over the years, she said about 100 of her students joined the effort as researchers. One of her former students, Jennifer M. Schwartzott, argued the case before the Court of Appeals in June, the third time the case had come before the state's highest court.

"They've been to the Court of Appeals three times. That should be enough," said Ifill, adding that this decision exhausts possible appeals in state courts.

The opposing lawyer suggested, however, that the case might not end there.

Susan T. Ford of Annapolis said she and her client, Richard Schafer, president of Maryland Reclamation Associates, were evaluating their legal options.

She declined to speculate on what those might be, but Schafer has mentioned in the past the possibility of a constitutional "takings" claim. Such a case would argue, in effect, that the regulations the county enacted after Schafer bought the land for $732,500 in 1990 violated his Fifth Amendment property rights.

In August 1989, Harford County included the land in a county waste management plan. But within weeks, the county council reversed that decision. In 1991, the county enacted zoning regulations barring the project without approval from the county board of appeals.

That set off a series of lawsuits, countersuits and often tense public hearings that cost both sides tens of thousands of dollars.

At one point, Schafer filed a $2.9 million suit against Winifred and George Jonas, and two other opponents. The defendants eventually won a countersuit and were awarded $40,000.

"We put the money back into the fight," said George Jonas.

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