Baltimore's housing commissioner has reversed the city's position in a neighborhood dispute over a metal scrap yard and ordered the zoning office to issue a permit for an automobile shredding system without a public hearing.
The action by Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III last month has angered Southwest Baltimore community leaders in Mill Hill. They have battled United Iron and Metal, the noisy, air-polluting scrap yard in their back yard, for more than 40 years.
The permit was issued Sept. 28 for a new $1.4 million "wet system" yard officials say will reduce air and noise pollution when shredded cars are covered in water.
The wet system was to be the subject of a yet-to-be-scheduled hearing at the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals before a conditional-use permit could be granted. Community leaders weren't opposed to the wet system but wanted to talk about yard problems. The state often has cited the yard for air pollution.
A lawyer for the owner, however, went above the zoning board and the city's zoning administrator to get the permit issued. The zoning administrator works for the housing commissioner.
The permit was granted on orders from Mr. Henson despite a Sept. 28 memo from the city's planning director stating that "the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals review is required."
Dianne Hoffman of the 2600 block of Wilkens Ave. said, "I'm very upset because they are above the law." She lives in front of the scrap yard in the city's longest block of rowhouses being designated as a historic district.
Mr. Henson said he ordered the permit issued because he believes the company is only replacing equipment, which does not require a public hearing and approval at the zoning board. He also said he moved to save jobs, fearing a shutdown of the yard without a wet shredder, a possibility denied by a state official.
"You don't go to a hearing for replacement of equipment. You go to a hearing to replace a structure," said Mr. Henson.
Community leaders said they had hoped they could use the hearing as leverage to get the scrap yard owners to landscape the yard, clean up streets and agree to a neighborhood committee to monitor pollution problems.
Though community leaders want the wet shredder installed, "The system allows input from the community at these hearings so no one should be excused from the process," said community leader Mary Bontempo.
The residents have filed an appeal with the zoning board to require a public hearing before the wet system is installed. But company officials said they plan to have it built by Thanksgiving.
The scrap yard is a source of pollution behind the 2600 block of Wilkens Ave., where explosions from gas tanks being crunched rattle houses and break windows. Fluff from auto upholstery lands in yards and sheet metal has flown onto homeowners' roofs. Joel Sauer, a lawyer representing scrap yard owner David J. Joseph Co., said he went to Mr. Henson to get the permit because he heard that the city's zoning administrator was holding it up.
"I explained the situation to Dan Henson. It was resolved by the city, and we picked up the permit," Mr. Sauer said.
Donna Johnson, zoning administrator, declined to comment.
The metal shredder is 40 feet high and 178 feet long -- the length of 10 city rowhouses. The improvements include replacing the current air system that separates out ferrous metal with a water system company officials say will lower air pollution and muffle explosions.
In discussing the permit, Mr. Henson said, "There is the issue of saving jobs."
"Apparently United Iron and Metal, like them or hate them, would have to shut down under order from the Maryland Department of the Environment on Oct. 2 if they didn't replace the dry shredder with the wet shredder," he said.
Although the state agency has been pressuring the company to install the wet shredder, "We never said the plant would shut down," said Frank Courtright, manager of the department's air-quality compliance program.