Activists winning more fights with developers


In the past year, residents of Baltimore's suburban counties have rallied to defeat a millionaire who wanted to build a football stadium in Laurel, a developer who planned to build a motor speedway in Havre de Grace, and the powerful Wal-Mart chain that was looking to open a store on Reisterstown Road.

Aided by sympathetic politicians and new laws governing development, citizens have more power than ever before to channel, modify and, in some cases, defeat development.

Some call these activists "NIMBYs" -- An acronym from the phrase "not in my back yard" -- and say their opposition to development is threatening the region's economic vitality.

"They are choking the golden goose," said lawyer G. Scott Barhight, who has represented numerous developers in fights against residents.

But community activists see themselves as underdogs fighting to protect their quality of life against wealthy and powerful developers in a system stacked against them.

"We're the Indians going out with bows and arrows to fight off tanks," said Richard W. McQuaid, president of the North County Coalition, which has fought development in northern Baltimore County.

County officials, meanwhile, walk a precarious line between supporting the economic development that is needed to help pay for public services and ensuring that new growth doesn't contribute to urban sprawl.

Baltimore County Economic Development Director Robert L. Hannon laid out the quandary: "When you talk about creating overall job opportunities, people agree with that. When you talk about increasing traffic, their self-interest takes over."

Government officials also have their own self-interest to look after -- the dilemma of pleasing developers who supply campaign contributions and serving the residents who supply the votes.

Over the years, communities have opposed practically every ma-jor commercial development project from Eastpoint Mall to Westview Shopping Center. But 30 years ago, their opposition went largely unheeded. Those were the days when the Baltimore County Council was changing the zoning on properties to benefit campaign contributors, and the county executives in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties were caught taking kickbacks from architects and engineers.

"If there was any development, the community had absolutely no input," said J. Carroll Holzer, a Baltimore County lawyer who for years has represented citizen groups against development.

Today, the laws give communities more say in development projects. In 1992, Baltimore County became the first jurisdiction in the area to require developers to meet with residents before submitting development plans for county approval. Last year, Harford County also passed a law requiring citizen input in the initial stages of a project and creating citizen counsels to review and help plan development.

Last fall, voters in Howard County overwhelmingly voted to amend the county charter to require that changes in the comprehensive zoning plan be treated as legislation, which can either be vetoed by the county executive or repealed by public referendum.

"I think the pendulum has swung way to the side of the community," said Towson developer James F. Knott. "There are more votes with the community. I'm one vote. They have a lot of power, and it's hard to beat that."

But citizen groups point out that just because they have more chance to comment doesn't necessarily mean they have more power. In Baltimore County, the new development process is faster than the old one and limits the grounds upon which citizens can appeal decisions by the zoning hearing officers.

And often developments can avoid the community input meetings altogether. Baltimore County issued 12,917 building permits in 1994, but held only 59 community input meetings.

"Minor" projects and those approved under the old development process are exempt. Even such large projects as the Time Warner Inc. distribution center in White Marsh and the Health Care Financing Administration building in Woodlawn were not subjected to community scrutiny.

In Anne Arundel, Carroll and areas of Howard County outside Columbia, the laws are even less favorable to residents. There, citizens are given practically no chance to comment publicly on a project until after it has been approved, provided that the proposed development complies with zoning guidelines. Citizens can appeal, but by then construction may have started.

"The whole process is a developer's dream," Dr. McQuaid said. "The community has to spend large sums of money in order to fight it, and practically every time you lose."

Residents have lost their fights against a Wal-Mart in Howard County and a United Parcel Service distribution center in Baltimore County, but there also have been victories against seemingly insurmountable odds.

In Anne Arundel, residents fought both money and politics to defeat Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke's plan to build a 78,600-seat football stadium in Laurel.

"We were a ragtaggle bunch," said Jeanne Mignon, head of Citizens Against the Stadium II. The group started 1 1/2 years ago over coffee and doughnuts in a Laurel living room and worked for the next year to keep the stadium out of their back yard.

"People kept calling us NIMBYs," Ms. Mignon said. "Frankly I didn't care. We knew the benefits [of the stadium] weren't going to make our lives any better. We felt strongly our case was correct.

"The bottom line is the process works when you push and fight," Ms. Mignon said.

Ruth Hendricksen, a Harford County resident who led the fight against a car racetrack earlier this year, said she, too, feels residents have the power to make a difference.

A year ago, she and her neighbors learned that a developer was planning to build a $10 million multipurpose motor sports complex about 1 1/2 miles from downtown Havre de Grace. The residents appealed to officials in the county and in the town of Havre de Grace and found the politicians eager to help out in an election year. Eventually, the developer withdrew the plan.

"I felt good about our experience," Mrs. Hendricksen said. "The government is waking up to see that citizens aren't going to sit back and let planning officials make decisions for us."

Others who have won victories aren't so optimistic.

"The county's zoning process is an absolute joke," said Joseph Little of Owings Mills, who helped defeat a plan to build a Wal-Mart in his neighborhood. That plan was withdrawn last fall, but days later residents watched in dismay as stakes were pounded in the ground there to mark the location of a proposed Target store.

The residents are worried that the store will increase traffic and crime in their neighborhood, but they haven't found the politicians to be sympathetic to their concerns.

"The county's process makes it seem like they're working with the community. But for the most part, it seems they don't care what the constituents think," Mr. Little said.

Developers cite the Wal-Mart case and the recent defeat of a proposed Price Club in a commercial district off Timonium Road as examples that show residents now have too much power.

"If you can't build a store on land that is zoned commercial, where can you build it?" asks Mr. Barhight, who is representing Target Stores in its effort to build on Reisterstown Road.

Even when developers win, their ordeals can be so onerous that they discourage other developers, Mr. Barhight said.

A county hearing officer granted the University of Maryland Baltimore County's petition to build a 93-acre research park on its campus, but not until the university went through two community impact meetings and a four-day administrative hearing in which neighbors lined up to complain -- and sometimes shout -- about wasting tax dollars on the project.

And still, the university's trial isn't over. Opponents have filed an appeal with the county Board of Appeals. UMBC plans to proceed with construction at its own risk while awaiting the outcome.

"This adds to the county's reputation as anti-development," said Mr. Barhight, who represents the university.

Arnold E. Jablon, director of Baltimore County's Department of Permits and Development Management, defended the county's development process, saying that while it requires public comment, it takes up to a year less than it once did. Community input is important, he said, but added, "Sometimes it's not pretty."

Not all developers are complaining.

"It's critical that all parties get heard," said Donald Manekin of Manekin Corp. He said his company has found it pays to meet with residents from the beginning, even in counties where it is not required by law.

Cathy A. Lickteig a spokeswoman for the Rouse Co., said the company tries to meet with residents early on. "Everyone is not always going to be happy," she said. "But it's important for us to get out there."

As Baltimore's suburban counties continue to grow, the tension between developers and residents will likely increase, and both sides will look for ways to expand their legal and political clout.

Residents already are saying that more needs to done to close legal loopholes that allow developments to escape public scrutiny. Developers are urging the county to put a limit to citizen appeals and adopt more expedient permitting processes.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III said the criticism from both sides is an indication that the county has found the right balance between developers and residents. "I think we need to let the process work."

The goal, politicians say, is to manage growth while encouraging economic development.

"It's always going to be a public policy challenge that's going to evolve," said Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann. "We believe everyone has to work together."

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