Baltimore Co. plan seeks speedier repair of alleys


Potholes and gullies in the alley next to Robert and Elsie Lovell's tidy Towson rowhouse have been a problem for much of their 36 years on Burkleigh Road.

"We used to fill [them] ourselves," said Mr. Lovell, a 77-year-old retired department store employee. But he cannot handle them now because of his age, and the size of the holes -- 6 to 8 inches deep. The blacktop surface is gone in many places, leaving jagged slashes pockmarked with stones in the sloping alley.

But the Lovells and other residents of older communities around the Beltway are hoping that Baltimore County's new interest in helping them will come home in a very concrete way.

As many as 220 of the county's 1,000 alleys are in "poor or unacceptable condition," according to the county Public Works Department -- a result of years of neglect and cumbersome procedures that limited the government's ability to overhaul them.

The administration of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III has allocated $5.5 million for up to 60 alley replacements over the next two years, with temporary patching on the worst places until work begins next spring on reconstruction.

The County Council is scheduled to vote Aug. 7 on a new, simpler and quicker alley replacement policy -- a concern spurred by fears of creeping urban blight as older, retired homeowners give way to investors and rental properties in such communities as Towson, Catonsville, Arbutus, Essex, Dundalk, Woodlawn and Fullerton.

The new policy seeks to improve the image of older neighborhoods by renovating alleys, sidewalks and streets and make older homes attractive to young families, thus rejuvenating the county's neighborhoods and its stagnant tax base.

But Lottie Eichelberger, 81, who moved into a new rowhouse on Southbrook Road in Dundalk's Gray Manor neighborhood in 1952, remains skeptical about her chances for getting a new alley.

"I don't think I'll ever live to see it," she said, noting that a petition to repave the alley failed years ago because some neighbors didn't want to pay their share of the cost.

Under the old system, the procedure for alley replacements could take years.

Because alleys are not considered public property, residents who wanted one repaved had to get signatures from at least two-thirds of homeowners who were willing to pay up to half the cost -- and that just to get on a waiting list until the county had the money.

Then residents were told how much their share of the cost would be -- based on their property's alley frontage -- and if two-thirds of the owners still agreed, the work would be contracted.

The procedure could take five to eight years, and by that time some who had signed their approval had moved, died or changed their minds, killing the effort.

Under the procedure before the council, the county would simply fix the worst alleys outright and bill residents $750 each. The money can be paid, interest free, over a period of 15 years, or the debt deducted at the time a home is sold.

The Public Works Department is to prepare a list of all alleys needing repair and rate them as unsafe, poor, fair or good. After consultations with council members, the worst alleys will be tackled first.

The petition process also would be simplified, with a simple majority of homeowners needed for a successful petition instead of two-thirds. Each homeowner would pay an equal amount instead of being billed through the more complicated front-foot assessment charge, and the price per house would be set each year so residents know the costs beforehand.

Construction would begin no later than six months after Sept. 1 of each year, when the county announces which petitions are accepted. The others would be considered again the next year.

The county will bid the alley jobs in packages by area, to try to get the best prices. Some alleys will be only partially rebuilt, depending on the extent of decay.

The county's new Community Conservation program will work with neighborhoods to acquaint them with the new alley replacement policy. Mr. Ruppersberger said he also wants the County Council "very much involved."

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