Neighbors upset over plans to build in 10-acre oasis Owner has zoning, plans 11 homes in Howard County


There aren't many places in Ellicott City like this.

This 10-acre wooded area has no paths or picnic tables, and there are no roads to take you in there. Instead, there are a variety of trees, two streams, patches of wetlands, deer, fish, birds -- and sunlight trying to peek in.

For owner Ron Wildman, who lives across the street, it's the perfect place to build 11 environmentally friendly homes. For nearby neighbors on Worthington Way, this last piece of undeveloped land in the neighborhood has been a part of their homes for 30 years -- and they want to keep it that way.

"Traditionally, this area has been available for children to play in," said Lee Walker Oxenham. "Once you build houses there, that will end."

But Wildman -- whose job is to advise developers about environmental issues -- believes his houses will simply open the scenic area to more people.

Such clashes between developers, landowners and residents are common as the demand for housing consumes woods and farmland coveted by many people for its beauty. The fights may intensify when the amount of property available for homes and businesses shrinks -- as it has in Howard County, which has developed a larger percentage of its land than most counties in Maryland.

Wildman appears to have the law fully on his side, although residents will make a last-ditch challenge Tuesday before the county Board of Appeals. But law aside, residents say history should favor them.

When they moved to the area, residents say, real estate agents and county officials assured them there were no development plans.

"None of us thought it could be developed" because of the complex landscape, Oxenham said. Kim Jarrett, who has lived in the neighborhood for two years, said, "One of the big [selling] points of the house was that we were told that the area wouldn't be developed."

That was the intent of the original property owners, the Ballard family, who at one point wanted to see the land become a bird refuge. That idea became impractical, according to Thomas Ballard of Silver Spring, who said he helped his mother, Juliet Ballard, sell the last piece of what once was a 110-acre property to Wildman two years ago.

Wildman plans to use materials such as wood and stone to ensure that the houses blend with the environment. He says the heaviest development, for the houses and driveways and a private access road, would take up just 2 acres, leaving wooded areas around each home. The rest of the property would be left undisturbed.

"I like that area," he said. "I don't want it to be a big sore. I don't think it will be."

Worthington Way residents believe the Department of Planning and Zoning has been too generous in granting Wildman waivers from rules, such as one barring developers from building on a slope greater than 25 degrees. Four houses may be placed on slopes.

But the property had always been zoned for residential construction, and county officials and Wildman say the waivers were part of a negotiation that resulted in a sharp decrease in the number of proposed houses, from 17 to 11.

"They were able to make a good argument for the waiver" in March, said Cindy Hamilton, chief of the division of land development in planning and zoning. During the residents' appeal, "the burden is upon them or their attorneys to prove we were arbitrary or inconsistent."

"Everything we have done there conforms with Howard County regulations and environmental regulations," Wildman said. "I understand their concerns, but they have to understand that other people have a right to a house."

Wildman says he is doing a lot less with the land than most developers, who might build up to 20 houses.

"That property would have been developed no matter who bought it," he said.

But residents believe Wildman and the county are not doing enough to protect the land. Developing the area will create more soil erosion and pollute the two streams and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay, residents contend. They also worry about disturbing an area near wetlands and potential flooding from the changing landscape.

"If it were just woods, you would grit your teeth and accept it," said Jarrett. "How frustrating that you can't save [the Chesapeake] in your own back yard."

Pub Date: 7/22/98

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