There’s a small community in northern Baltimore County that’s Boring, and residents say that’s just fine with them.
“We’d like to stay Boring,” said resident Katherine Fanning during an online hearing to consider zoning changes. “We are asking for the support of our neighbors, of our councilman and Baltimore County, for the rejection of [proposed] zoning in the town of Boring.”
Fanning and her neighbors are opposed to a plan to sell the Boring Volunteer Fire Company property on Old Hanover Road and rezone the property. The department merged with another in 2017, forming the Upperco Volunteer Fire Company. The fire company is now looking to sell 7 acres, including the fire hall, to help pay for its new facility.
The century-old fire hall hosts bingo games twice a week, and residents — who helped raise money for the building — are worried they’ll lose their event center.
“We have two Borings in the whole country and if this deal goes through, there’s only going to be one,” resident Samuel Blum said, alluding to an Oregon town. “A lot of people feel like they’re being stabbed in the back.”
The potential buyer is a construction company, DSM Contracting, offering $750,000 for the site. DSM’s husband-and-wife owners, Santo and company president Debra Mirabile, also happen to be the president and a board member of the community group that could bless the zoning change and sale, the Hanover Road Association.
Residents say they feel shut out of the process and worry about what zoning changes would allow on the property.
The proposed change in Boring is one of thousands submitted as part of Baltimore County’s once-every-four-years zoning open call, known as the Comprehensive Zoning Map Process. Anyone can submit a change for any property in the county. The process gathers input from residents, property owners, the county Planning Board, county staff, and County Council. The council makes the final decision — often deferring to the council member who represents the area of the proposed change — on whether to change zoning with a vote by September.
Data on the county’s 2016 zoning process wasn’t immediately available. During the 2012 process, county spokesman Sean Naron said, the council made 174 changes in line with the recommendations made by the county planning department out of a total of 296 total issues raised, or roughly 59%.
During the 2016 process, Republican Councilman Wade Kach of Cockeysville, whose district includes Boring, said he made zoning decisions on only two of the 100 requests in his district without community input.
Critics of Baltimore County’s process say it can favor those with political influence, that decisions aren’t made with the entire county in mind and communities often aren’t aware of proposed changes. Joanne Antoine, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause Maryland, said it could be “a very flawed process” that’s “open to special interests, namely developers who we know have the most to gain from this.”
“One could assume that if a developer is making contributions to members of the council that maybe a member of the council might be more prone to pull that [zoning request] out of the pile,” she said.
Kach said the fire company asked him to rezone the property to “manufacturing light” from “resource conservation” to help sell the site.
In 2017, Boring Fire Company and Arcadia Volunteer Fire Company — just 3 miles apart — combined to form the Upperco Volunteer Fire Company. The company operates out of the Arcadia facility as it raises $6 million to build a new fire station on Hanover Pike and Fringer Road.
The county, Kach said, is willing to give Upperco a $3 million construction grant if the fire company can provide matching funds. When the fire company told him it wanted to put the Boring fire hall on the open market, Kach said he offered to submit a rezoning request for the land if it would help its efforts.
At the time, Boring lacked its own community group, Kach said, so he told Upperco to work with the Hanover Road Association to reach a community consensus on the request.
Residents say they first learned about the rezoning request at a January meeting of the Hanover Road Association. Kach told residents “nothing underhanded is going on” in an effort to stress the request is routine. A February community meeting was canceled at the last minute, and the pandemic has delayed the rezoning process and forced hearings online.
The Boring site wouldn’t be used for manufacturing, Debra Mirabile said, but it would have to be rezoned as such if they decide to relocate their entire business to Boring.
“Our every intention is to be good and responsible neighbors,” Debra Mirabile said.
Santo and Debra Mirabile each individually contributed $499 to Kach’s election committee in August, according to campaign finance records from the Maryland State Board of Elections.
The Mirabiles said they’ve recused themselves from the Hanover Road Association deliberations on the property.
Mirabile said DSM wants to use the property “solely as support” for storing and repairing their equipment. Five people work from DSM’s central office, he said, and 20 others for construction work. DSM would create minimal additional traffic in the community, he said, because their primary work is done off-site and construction crews hardly ever come to the office.
If approved, the Mirabiles said they’re willing to let the community use the site for bingo until they find a new venue.
Sam Blum’s father, James, said Upperco never offered the property to other potential buyers. The older Blum has submitted his own bid for the hall, and he’s accused the fire company of signing “under the table deals” with the community group.
Scott Boose, president of the Upperco Fire Department, said they had discussions with a nearby kennel about a possible sale before discussions with DSM. Upperco and DSM entered into a contract in November, and Kach said he didn’t know about DSM’s contract before Upperco asked about rezoning.
The proposal is facing backlash, according to Kach and several residents, due in part to changes in the community in recent years. The community had the fire hall, a post office, a church and a general store. The latter two sites have closed, Debra Mirabile said, and now residents are nostalgic because “the identity of the community is changing.”
Pam Ecker, president of the newly formed Boring Community Association, said bingo is the only event hosted at the fire hall since the fire company merger. Residents don’t mind if someone buys it, she said, but they deserve more input in the process.
Ecker told the council that residents are worried the rezoning or DSM will bring environmental issues and other nuisances into their quiet town.
Ed Crooks of Boring, who has been a county firefighter for decades, told The Baltimore Sun he understands resistance to any kind of change in small towns. However, the community needs to stop “bickering back and forth,” he said, if Boring wants to move forward.
“It’s a shame some of them can’t accept that. The Boring Fire House was a focal point of the community. It hurt me when they closed it, but I can’t stop it because it’s progress and you can’t stop progress,” he said.
Debra Mirabile told The Sun she understands the community’s concerns. She said they want to work in the community where they plan to live and employ residents someday.
The older Blum, a real estate broker who owns the town post office, said he’s been on both sides of zoning disputes. He’s learned the county typically observes “councilmanic courtesy,” meaning the council tends to follow the decision of the member from the district where the zoning issue has arisen.
“It’s really up to one person. You have all these hearings and they’re meaningless because it’s up to Wade Kach,” James Blum said.
Both the Hanover Road Association and the Boring Community Association now oppose the zoning change. The Boring Community Association is working to find either funding or an investor to buy the hall and maintain it as a community center.
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“They were supposed to leave it for a community center,” Ecker said. “A lot of things have happened already because of naivete, because we think people wouldn’t do those things.”