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Neighbors fight to preserve Chestnut Ridge Country Club's land

Property owners worry developer will build homes on grounds of club that closed last year

By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

10:10 AM EDT, July 8, 2012

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Tall, tangled grass grows on parts of the golf course at the former Chestnut Ridge Country Club. The buildings are locked. No one plays. The club closed last fall amid financial problems and a legal fight with former members.

Now, its sprawling land in Lutherville is the subject of another battle. Nearby property owners are asking the Baltimore County Council to protect the land, worried that a developer will damage the environment and clog local roads by building homes there.

"That green space, that stream valley was always an open space that this community knew as a golf course for nearly 60 years," said Howard Schulman, who lives on Broadway Road. "And now it's on the chopping block."

A firm associated with Timonium developer Cignal Corp. bought the country club land in February for $5.3 million, according to state property records.

The property off Falls Road is among several golf courses that officials are examining as the county reviews its zoning maps. On the southeast side of the county, the Sparrows Point Country Club might sell land for development. And County Councilman David Marks is considering a move to protect part of the Mount Pleasant Golf Course, a Baltimore City-owned property with a portion in the county. He worries that the land could someday be developed with apartment buildings.

"Whenever golf courses go out of business, people get concerned because they like the open space," said Teresa Moore of the Valleys Planning Council.

Her group wants Baltimore County to preserve the Chestnut Ridge land with a more restrictive zoning designation, arguing that development there would contradict the county's plan to protect its water resources. Chestnut Ridge's 232 acres is home to headwaters of Dipping Pond Run, a tributary of the Upper Jones Falls.

"A lot of the concern has to do with impacts to the run because it's already been severely impacted by other development in the area," Moore said.

The property's topography — with a high point of 610 feet — means development on the site would harm the run, which is the last stream in the Jones Fall Watershed with naturally reproducing brook trout, said Harold Burns, president of the Falls Road Community Association.

And "more impervious surface means more storm water," Burns said. "More storm water means more flooding."

Residents are writing letters to County Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond urging her to vote to rezone the land, and yard signs in the neighborhood advertise a community website, savefallsroad.org, that takes up the cause.

The land is zoned to allow at least 100 homes, but fewer houses would likely be built because of environmental restrictions. Residents are pushing for a zoning classification that would allow only about nine homes on the site.

The developer that bought the Chestnut Ridge land told country club leaders he planned to keep the property as a golf course, according to a letter Herb Weiner, the former club's president, wrote to members in January.

In December, Wells Fargo sold the financially troubled club's mortgage to CR Financial LLC, according to Weiner's letter. CR Financial is owned in part by Armando Cignarale of Cignal, the letter says.

No one from Cignal, a commercial and residential firm known for developing waterfront housing in Baltimore, returned messages seeking comment on the property. An attorney for CR Golf Club LLC, which is connected to Cignal, opposed any zoning change in a March letter to the county planning department.

"There is no justification for changing the classification of this property other than to prevent or reduce future development of the property to the benefit of neighboring property owners; this, in our opinion, is not an appropriate reason to exercise the rezoning authority," attorney Patricia Malone wrote.

Cignal's past projects include the Moorings at Canton and North Shore at Canton. The company also built La Estancia, a residential resort community that overlooks a P.B. Dye-designed golf course in the Dominican Republic, according to its website.

The county environmental protection department has changed its stance on recommending a zoning change for Chestnut Ridge. In a January memo, the department recommended a zoning designation that would restrict the number of homes that could be built there to less than a dozen to protect the land's aquatic resources.

The department indicated in the memo that the property's current zoning "raises certain environmental concerns but is generally consistent with the goals, policies and programs" of the department. The memo noted the trout population and water resources there.

A subsequent memo, issued a month later, dropped a specific zoning recommendation, instead saying: "A zoning classification that would allow less density on this site would reduce potential impacts to the aquatic community and trout resources downstream, and reduce pollutant loads from future development."

Nearby homeowners in Lutherville have many concerns they want the County Council to consider — including environmental resources, traffic and the effect housing development could have on residents' wells, said Michele Miller, whose property is next to the club's.

Congestion already plagues the area, resident Tom Goldbergh said. "These roads were not designed for heavy traffic."

Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat who had asked the county to evaluate the property's zoning, said she has toured the site and is concerned about environmental issues there. The country club sits outside the county's Urban-Rural Demarcation Line, which separates areas that have public water and sewer service from those that don't.

"We have to take a really hard look at our rural areas," said Almond, adding that it is not clear how much of the land could be developed for housing.

Almond and the rest of the council are set to vote on the issue and other zoning matters by mid-September. Both the planning board and planning staff have recommended no change in the property's current zoning.

Developers have turned other Baltimore-area golf courses into housing developments, including the Bonnie View Country Club in Mount Washington and Worthington Valley Country Club in Owings Mills.

That is why Marks wants to take precautions with the Mount Pleasant Golf Course, a city-owned property with a 37-acre portion in the county. The councilman, a Perry Hall Republican, is considering down-zoning the property, which is in the Loch Raven Boulevard corridor. At its current zoning, the land could someday be home to hundreds of apartments, he said.

"It may be a golf course today, but we have golf courses around the country that are selling off pieces of land for development or closing altogether," he said. "And I just have very little faith that Baltimore City will consult with Baltimore County or its communities if it decides to sell off that property. ... I don't have a crystal ball, but right now, that level of zoning allows for very intense development that I believe would strain Towson schools."

Jon Ladd, executive director of the Baltimore Municipal Golf Corp., said he knows of no plans to sell or develop the Mount Pleasant course.

"It's a gem," Ladd said.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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