Foot in the city, eye on the county Violetville: Residents complain Baltimore isn't responsive enough to complaints of potholes, speeding, vandalism and talk of moving out.


When the phone rings in the office of Stephen G. Sam Moxley, the call for the Baltimore County councilman could be from anywhere in his district -- Catonsville, Arbutus, Lansdowne.

Or from a southwest city neighborhood, Violetville, that straddles the county line.

"It seems like the city residents call me more and more and more often," says Moxley, 39, the council chairman. "They tell you the city has let them down, so they call the county. I address the issue if I can."

Brooklyn and Curtis Bay tried to join Anne Arundel County, and Mount Washington can feel more like suburb than city. But perhaps no Baltimore neighborhood has more affinity for the county -- and less affection for the city government -- than Violetville.

In recent weeks, residents -- in informal conversations at Judy G's carryout, inside the rec center, and on their front porches -- have spoken increasingly of turning their geographic and emotional ties to Baltimore County into a political reality.

"A lot of people say to me, 'If we're not being taken care of by the city, we should go back and be part of the county,' " says Shirley Mendez, president of the Violetville Community Association.

"I used to argue with them," she says. "But I have to say that, right now, I agree with them."

For now, secession is just talk. There is no petition drive, no lobbying effort, and most residents say that any bid to break a solidly middle-class neighborhood away from Baltimore has as much chance of winning city approval as the fourth-place Orioles have of catching the Yankees this season.

Frank Derr, the deputy city solicitor, says he is unaware of any procedure or clear precedent for such a move. "I don't know how it could be done," he says. "I don't know if it could be done."

But the momentum for secession from Baltimore represents a startling change from three years ago when neighbors took a reporter on a tour and proudly pointed out that the roads were better paved, and the houses better kept, on the city side of the border.

Many Baltimoreans, in fact, would feel lucky to live in Violetville, a safe, suburban-style neighborhood of big Victorian, Tudor and colonial houses built in a spurt of development 50 years ago. But to spend time there is to feel cut off from the rest of the city.

Violetville is walled off on three sides: by the enormous St. Agnes Hospital complex to the east, Interstate 95 to the south and fast-moving Wilkens Avenue to the north.

This isolation, some residents say, makes the neighborhood extraordinarily sensitive to any hint of official neglect. Some Violetville children have been quietly enrolled by their parents in county schools. And Violetville is a place where the speeders doing 40 on Benson Avenue are routinely compared to race cars at the Indy 500.

Which is not to say the neighborhood is without nuisances.

This year's obsessions are vandalism and infrastructure. A loose crew of local teens, calling itself the Southwest Outlaws, has vandalized buildings and set fires on the railroad tracks. Police have not been able to stop them.

Along the 1000 block of Haverhill Road, residents have complained of "artificial snowstorms" -- flurries of paper that fly into back yards, swimming pools and a park from the Weyerhaeuser Recycling Co. plant behind them. "It's gotten to the point that every time the wind blows, even in summer, you think it's going to snow -- snow paper," says resident Ed Brushwiler, 47, who works for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

Two blocks east, Denny Sizemore stands on his front porch, next to a flag that says "Love," and explains how the 1000 block of Pine Heights Ave. has sunk 8 inches in three years. Water bubbles up through 6-inch-deep potholes. The street slopes so severely from left to right, he says, that the water runs over the curb and floods his yard when it rains.

"And during winter that water freezes, and we get an ice rink on my front yard," says Sizemore, a retired truck driver who has lived in the same house for 37 years. "I had to buy a four-wheel-drive just to get out of my driveway."

Relatively minor

Privately, city officials say they find these fiercely expressed concerns, while real, trivial compared with the ills that affect the rest of Baltimore. Some officials argue that the neighborhood of about 2,500 people is among the best-served in the city. Asked through a spokesman about Violetville yesterday, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he hopes that Violetville residents will bring any problems to its City Council members or the Southwest District Neighborhood Service Center "so we can come together to resolve them."

Councilman Edward L. Reisinger of the southwest 6th District, who is praised by Mendez for his work in Violetville, allows: "These problems are important to people there because the neighborhood is doing well."

And this spring's most glaring problems are getting attention. In recent weeks, Weyerhaeuser has changed managers at the recycling plant, hired an employee to keep paper from escaping its property, invited neighbors in for tours and offered to make donations to local causes.

Not enough

On Pine Heights Avenue, city crews recently repaired a broken waterline that was causing the street to sink. Department of Public Works spokesman Kurt L. Kocher says the city has repaired 15 potholes on the avenue in the past nine months and has added the avenue to a list of streets scheduled for full resurfacing in 2000.

"That's as strong a response to a neighborhood's concerns as we can do," says Kocher. "And we can assure them that the street shouldn't keep sinking."

But such responses do not reassure. For every problem fixed, residents can name two that the city ignored -- and that the county might resolve faster.

Mendez says she has relied almost exclusively on the county to battle speeding traffic. The city would not put speed bumps on Haverhill Road or Pine Heights, but a county engineer quickly agreed to shut down part of Coolidge Avenue to combat speeders.

"We had to step in on traffic issues," says Moxley, who helped with the Coolidge Avenue project. "I'm not sure what the city has done."

Moxley says he offers such comments reluctantly. He grew up on Frederick Road, in a house divided by the county line. And he says city officials have cooperated with him on Violetville issues.

"Honestly, the city needs a good neighborhood like Violetville more than the county," he says. "There's no chance I can see that they'll be able to break away. The city would have to agree, and they need the tax base."

The greater danger, say residents, is that Violetville will be weakened by frustrated residents who decide to sell their houses and move to the county.

Brushwiler and Sizemore, like many residents, talk without prompting of leaving. Escape from Baltimore is only 400 yards away.

"The only thing that is keeping me in Baltimore is my mother, who is sick," says Brushwiler. "If the county won't come to me, I'll go to it."

Pub Date: 6/12/98

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