A stretch of rolling countryside where Quail Creek gurgles through the pines and hardwoods on its way to the Gunpowder Falls has become a battleground in a war that pits Baltimore County residents and officials against a hard-nosed corporate takeover specialist who is used to getting his way.
Victor Posner, the principal stockholder of Security Management Corp., wants to build a 3,000-unit townhouse and condominium development on 215 acres of the former Towson Nurseries property nine miles north of Towson. To do it, he needs a zoning change and public water and sewer service.
Residents of the rural area and county officials are adamantly opposed to the proposal. Mr. Posner, who has battled the county for nearly two decades over the land, is equally determined to build.
The stakes are high. To Mr. Posner, a Miami-based financier who was forced by courts and shareholders to relinquish control of the $1 billion DWG Corp. conglomerate last year, it's the difference between building 43 homes allowed under existing zoning and the 3,000 townhouses he envisions for the development his company calls Colvista.
To the county officials, it means protecting an important part of the Loch Raven Reservoir watershed -- which supplies much of the metropolitan area's drinking water -- and maintaining the county's carefully developed growth plan.
This time, Security Management has mounted a two-pronged assault, with a multimillion dollar lawsuit against the county for denying the zoning last time around and another request to the county Board of Appeals for new zoning.
This morning, a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge is scheduled to hear motions to dismiss the suit, which asks for $10 million on each of eight counts.
The case before the Board of Appeals had been scheduled to start next week, but this week Security asked for and was granted a postponment.
Because of the lawsuit, county officials would not comment on the issue. Mr. Posner would not respond to questions over the telephone. Yesterday, he was still considering a response to questions sent to him by fax.
Residents of the area have issued a virtual call to arms.
"The community is fed up with being forced to fight this battle over and over again," said Judith Waldman, a founder of the Sparks community organization. "But we will never quit."
"A development of this size would just overwhelm our area and overtax our services," said Lee Riley, president of the Greater Sparks-Glencoe Community Council.
"We're concerned that with Mr. Posner's money and reputation, he will keep after this until he wears down county officials or finds some legal loophole to exploit."
Mr. Posner's history worries residents as much as his plans for the property.
In various court proceedings around the country, it has been alleged that he and his son, Steven, have acquired much their wealth by acquiring companies -- including Sharon Steel, Pennsylvania Engineering Corp., and DWG -- and draining their assets for personal use.
In a shareholders' lawsuit that ended with Mr. Posner giving up his stake in DWG, court-appointed lawyers found that Mr. Posner had received $31 million in salaries and bonuses over a five-year period in which the company earned a total of only $26 million.
Mr. Posner is awaiting a decision by federal judge in New York on a fraud case brought by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. SEC lawyers have asked the court to bar Mr. Posner and his son, Steven, from holding any office or owning a principal interest in any publicly owned company.
Involvement began in 1973
According to Baltimore County court documents, Security Management became involved with the Towson Nurseries property in 1973 when a company it owned, Universal Housing and Development Co. Inc. bought 390 acres.
At the time, the property was zoned for medium-density housing and light business. In 1976, the County Council rezoned the property into a new, highly restrictive classification designed to protect watershed land. The watershed protection zone limits development to one unit for every five acres.
In 1980, the council turned down a request from Universal to rezone the property for medium-density housing. County agencies opposed the request.
Universal filed suit against the county, claiming its due process rights were violated, but the suit was dismissed in 1983.
Universal also went before the Board of Appeals in an effort to get the property rezoned. That attempt, too, was rejected.
When the county went through its four-year comprehensive rezoning in 1992, Security Management -- Universal's legal descendant -- was there again, this time asking for high-density zoning.
Although requests during the comprehensive rezoning don't require specific plans from developers, Security asked county officials for a meeting to review its Colvista proposal.
Colvista called for an assortment of stacked townhouse duplexes and condominiums built into the rolling hillsides. It also called for housing for the elderly and a small community retail center.
Rejected by county
County officials were impressed with the design, according to intra-agency memos and correspondence, but in the end every county agency involved recommended that it be rejected. Their primary concern was preserving the Loch Raven watershed.
Officials also noted that the county already had designated two growth areas -- Owings Mills in the west and White Marsh in the east -- for high-density development specifically to protect other rural and watershed areas.
If it had been approved, Colvista would be exceeded in size only by the 5,000 residential units planned for Owings Mills.
County officials argued that the roads, schools, sewers, parks and recreation facilities in the northern part of the county could not support such a large development. They also expressed unwillingness to extend existing water and sewer lines.
With unanimous opposition from county agencies and local residents, the council voted in October 1992 to retain the watershed zoning.
In April, Security filed suit against the county, claiming that the council's action violated its constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.
The zoning decision amounted to taking the land without just compensation, the company alleged.
In its court documents, Security noted that over the years, the county had approved rezoning requests for surrounding developments, including Loveton Farms, Broadmead, Hunters Run and the Hunt Valley Mall. It also noted that the county had run a spur line from its public water and sewer area to serve Loveton Farms, which is north of Security's property.
An 'unusual' suit
"Filing a suit against the county on a comprehensive rezoning issue is unusual," said Peter Max Zimmerman, the county's people's counsel. Mr. Zimmerman, whose duties include zoning protection, has intervened in the case.
Thomas C. Beach, III, the attorney representing Security Management in the lawsuit, declined to comment.
The county has asked that the suit be dismissed on grounds that Security has not exhausted its administrative remedies.
Security has taken its next administrative step by filing what is known as a cycle rezoning request with the Board of Appeals. Because the overall zoning issue was decided just last year, Security must prove to the board that the council made an error.
G. Scott Barhight, the attorney representing Security before the Board of Appeals, declined to comment on the zoning case.