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Rural peace giving way to development, rivalry


An era of rural coexistence is fading along rapidly changing Route 97 in western Howard County -- a loss symbolized by the coming fall of five old Glenwood homes and shops to make way for a new shopping center.

Penny Gray, who has lived her whole life across from the old buildings, laments their loss. But even more, she mourns the change in her relations with some of her west county neighbors -- as they all rush to put up commercial developments, in the process converting Route 97 into a road that some fear will end up looking like a U.S. 40 shopping strip.

Ms. Gray, Ronald Eyre and Brice Ridgely attended Glenelg High School in the 1960s. They were, she said she believes, friends.

But now the very land that bound them as neighbors has split them apart, as opposing parties in zoning hearings, court briefs and other public disputes.

"Everybody talked to each other before we decided to go into business," said Ms. Gray, who with her family members hopes to build a few commercial buildings -- perhaps a gas station and medical clinic -- on their property at Route 97 and Carr's Mill Road.

But the commercial zoning the Grays won last summer was challenged in Howard Circuit Court by attorneys working for the Eyres and the Ridgelys, who already have gained commercial zoning on other, nearby Route 97 properties where they plan to put developments that may compete with the Grays'.

The Grays withstood that challenge, but now Mr. Ridgely's lawyer is taking the matter to the state Court of Special Appeals.

The Ridgelys are longtime western Howard farmers who have augmented their agricultural enterprises with a range of other pursuits, from auctioneering to rodeo riding. They're developing a gas station and several stores on a site along Route 97, about a mile north of the Gray property.

The Eyres are best known for their private bus company and development of a small shopping center in Glenelg. They plan a second small shopping center directly across the street from the Gray property, a development that will cause the destruction of the old Glenwood buildings.

Friday, when Ms. Gray's husband complained to a Sun reporter about the Eyres preparing to tear down the old buildings on their property, some saw it as just another salvo in the feud among neighbors.

"It's like the Hatfields and the McCoys," said Randy Ridgely, one of Brice Ridgely's two sons. He said that it's a shame that people brought up to reach handshake agreements must rely on lawyers to settle their disputes.

Mr. Eyre said he wants no part of discussing how he and his brother are getting along with the Grays.

He did say, however, that the threatened buildings on his property across from Ms. Gray are either not of historical significance or are too dilapidated to move. One exception is a Victorian house the Eyres have attempted to sell without success, he said.

The Eyres' development -- to be called the Inwood Village Center -- will include a convenience store, health clinic, carryout restaurant, liquor store and hair salon.

Brice Ridgely said the issue is plain and simple: just business. "I remain friends with them," he said, adding, "I have an attorney. . . . The things I have done, they were done with his advice.

"It's no longer, 'You come out and plow my field and I'll come over and bale your hay.' Those days are pretty well gone," he said. "The world is wrapped up around a dollar today."

But Ms. Gray has trouble separating business from friendship.

"I wish Brice would talk to me," she said. "It makes me mad that he doesn't communicate. All he has to do is pick up the telephone and talk to me."

She said handling the dispute over developing her family's 5 1/2 -acre commercial parcel could be done more effectively if the commercial property owners along Route 97 would cooperate with each other.

"I don't want to duplicate what everybody else is doing around here," she said, adding that her family wants to put in something that community leaders want, not simply what would make the most money.

Besides, she said, "My lawyer couldn't pay me enough money to turn against my neighbor."

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