Enclave sees itself as David to development's Goliath

Norris Lane, a tiny island of neat, well-kept homes in a sea of commerce, industry and super-highways around Dundalk, is a place where the residents -- most of them related -- say constant vigilance is the price they must pay to keep their community alive.

Until nearly mid-century Norris Lane was a dirt road leading through woods and past fields to the vast Norris Farm, which later became the notorious Norris Farm Landfill. Along that lane the community known as Norris Lane, one of Baltimore County's smallest black enclaves, began to take shape.


Gabriel Collins, 59, recalled how in 1950 he, his brother and their stepfather built the first new house -- the brick bungalow he shares with a daughter and son-in-law -- on what is now Delk Court, a semicircle off Norris Lane.

"We had to clear the ground and dig a cesspool and dig in the water line about 200 feet from Norris Lane," Mr. Collins said. "We did it the hard way, with pick and shovel."


New houses were added, mostly frame and brick bungalows. When Bethlehem Steel phased out its company town, four frame houses were brought from Sparrows Point and re-erected in Norris Lane.

The Rev. Howard Dawson, 68, remembers those times. He is Norris Lane's oldest resident, "in time if not in age," and moved from Northwest Baltimore in 1937 when his father, the late Rev. Walker H. Dawson, became pastor of the Galilee Church.

"This was all cornfields when we came here," said Mr. Dawson, a retired school vice-principal and pastor of New Rising Star Baptist Church in Baltimore. "People worked on the farms or down at Sparrows Point at Bethlehem Steel and then Eastern Stainless Steel."

Improvements came slowly. Sidewalks and curbs weren't built until after Mr. Dawson was appointed to the county Human Relations Commission, where he lobbied for change. As the community developed, it became like Poe's "Purloined Letter," hidden in plain sight between North Point Boulevard and Old North Point Road.

"It's a little haven. You have to look for it to find it," said the Rev. Douglas Wilson, pastor of Galilee Baptist Church since 1989.

For years, the church has been the community's spiritual center. Between 125 and 150 people attend services on an average Sunday, said Mr. Wilson, who is Mr. Collins' son-in-law.

Founded in 1905 at Colgate Creek, the congregation moved to the present location when the federal government took over the original property as part of Fort Holabird. The original church at Robinson Avenue and Old North Point Road was rebuilt in 1962.

Mary Ranson, 84, who was reared on a nearby farm, described her neighborhood as "our small world. . . . A lot of black people who come here didn't know we were here, and they are very surprised when they see it." All the community's houses are well-maintained, and colorful gardens decorate the carefully manicured yards.


"It's the very nature of the people and their desire to show pride in what belongs to them," Mr. Wilson said. "It's a very close community, and if you're not a relative, you become like one."

People refer to each other as "uncle," "aunt," "cousin." Most are related by blood or marriage. But, Mrs. Ranson said, "a lot of the younger people are getting married and moving away. There's no ground left for them to build on here."

Commercial development surrounds the tranquil working-class neighborhood. The residents, feeling the pressure, are actively resisting further encroachment.

In 1988, the state Department of Assessment and Taxation assessed all properties in the community -- including the homesites -- as commercial property, which would have meant huge tax increases. It took a march on Annapolis and help from state and county legislators before sites were assessed as residences instead of businesses, Mr. Wilson said.

Now the people of Norris Lane are engaged in another battle. The owner of an adjacent 7 acres wants to build an indoor sports center, with batting cages and a miniature golf course. He has requested a zoning change for 2 acres on his property. The residents, determined to preserve their neighborhood, have voted to fight the rezoning.

"If they make it commercial, they could do anything they want with it," Mrs. Ranson said.


Two-thirds of the tract has commercial zoning, but the owner wants the entire property zoned commercial. However, the Planning Board has recommended reducing the present high-density residential zoning on the 2 acres to a lower-density residential category, which would hinder the sports project, according to the Office of Planning and Zoning.

In anticipation of the County Council's Oct. 15 vote on countywide rezoning, Councilman Donald C. Mason, D-7th, toured the area and said he is inclined to side with the community.

While Nolen J. Graves, whose family has owned the property for decades, has the appropriate zoning for his project on most of the tract, the 2 acres in question form "the buffering area for the community," Mr. Mason said.

Mr. Graves, who runs a development and contracting business in Ocean City, said he doesn't need the zoning change and could build his project under the existing zoning by applying for special exceptions.

"We're going for [the zoning change] because it's in the four-year cycle and it would only be harder next time," said Mr. Graves, who has told the community he will not sell the property for low-density residential development.

"We are surrounded by commercial property; everything on the boulevard is commercial. The numbers just don't work," he said. "I know, I'm in housing."