Baltimore County planners want to allow hundreds of houses on waterfront conservation land along the Bird River in Middle River, over the strong objections of environmental regulators.
Some county officials say a proposal for up to 400 homes where only three are now allowed would defeat the purpose of multimillion-dollar public investments in natural resource protection and would represent an unprecedented expansion into an area where the county has restricted growth since 1967.
Joseph Stamato, owner of Verus Development LLC, the company that wants to develop the site, said "we're protecting the land" by using only about half of the 292 acres of woods and fields.
About half the property is within 1,000 feet of the water, where development is restricted under the state's Critical Area law meant to protect the Chesapeake Bay. Some of the property within 1,000 feet of the river is wetlands, but most is buildable, he said.
Planners who recommended a zoning change that would allow the project say the developer has agreed to reduce its scope by building only single-family homes, dropping plans for townhouses and a restaurant. The property is now zoned for conservation; the change would allow residential development.
But Sharon Bailey of the county's Advisory Commission on Environmental Quality said she was not impressed by concessions Verus has promised. She said the proposed zoning change, to be voted on by the County Council this year, is "everything that should not happen and should not be considered."
"I'm shocked that the planning staff recommended it at all," said Teresa Moore, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, a north county preservation group. She said one of the group's main goals is to make sure growth is concentrated within the Urban Rural Demarcation Line, the county boundary established to separate dense suburban development from more rural areas. "This seems to fly in the face of that."
Most neighbors object to the project, said Lin Bleakley, former president of the Bird River Beach Community Association, whose group opposes the project.
"We do not want to see a zoning change," Bleakley wrote to County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins on March 19. "Baltimore County has spent millions of dollars to protect the Bird River Watershed and it seems counterproductive to develop a large tract" so close to the water. The group had said previously that it would not oppose the project.
The Oliver Beach Improvement Association has written to oppose the project, as have Helen and Phillip Orem, who live on Stumpfs Road, which cuts through the woods off Ebenezer Road to the proposed development site.
"The abundant trees along Stumpfs Road clean the air, muffle sound and provide a habitat for wildlife," the Orems wrote. "We have serious concerns about the impact of development on Bird River."
If the project were built, public sewer lines would have to be extended outside the Urban Rural Demarcation Line. That step has been taken in the past only for health reasons, when private septic systems and wells have failed or were at risk of failing, said David L. Thomas, assistant to the director of the county Department of Public Works. He said this would be the largest residential project ever built outside the line "by far."
Jeff Mayhew, head of community planning, said a zoning change to allow mixed business and intense residential use outside the Urban Rural Demarcation Line on the county's west side was adopted four years ago, but it was not this large and the project has not been built.
The county's Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability objected strongly to the zoning change that would allow the Bird River project, submitting a memo to the planning office staff that described the environmental sensitivity of the land and investments that have been made to improve Bird River water quality and preserve nearby land.
The memo said the county and state have spent $13.9 million on water-quality improvements, and 3 million more is to be spent in the next three years on nearby streams. The department estimated that the project would add $5 million to the more than $200 million expected to be spent over the next 13 years to maintain Chesapeake Bay sediment and nutrient controls.
The memo says the zoning change would fly in the face of the county's master plan for growth, the state Critical Areas law and land preservation efforts under the Maryland Rural Legacy Program. The tract is bounded on two sides by land that is preserved either by that program or agricultural protections.
While his organization has not taken a position on the project, Charlie Conklin, president of the Gunpowder Valley Conservancy, expressed concern that if the land were developed, the state might be less inclined to make preservation grants in the future.
Vincent J. Gardina, the director of the county's environmental agency, said in an interview that the developer's plan involves land that is "the most environmentally sensitive on the site." He said the plan would mean clearing about 80 acres of forest, "which undoubtedly would have an impact on water quality in the Bird River and the bay."
The County Council has the final say on zoning changes and is not scheduled to vote until mid-September. The council hearing for the 6th District, in which the Bird River property is located, is scheduled for June 21 at Overlea High School.
As council practice usually works, members do not vote against zoning changes supported by the district representative, giving each member virtual carte blanche on zoning in their jurisdiction.
Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, said she has not made a decision on the proposed change. She said the developer presented a much larger plan months ago involving single-family homes and townhouses — about 1,500 homes in all — and a restaurant.
Bevins said she was pleased with Stamato's efforts to accommodate some of the community's concerns by scaling down the proposal.
"I sent them back to the drawing board a few times," she said