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Activist and developer do battle 10 acres of woods at the center of protracted stand-off


Lee Walker Oxenham says she has done it all for her 6-year-old son, Ian, who likes to hunt for tadpoles and wants to save the tigers.

Oxenham can't do much about tigers. But she is fighting as hard as she can to preserve a 10-acre plot of land near her Ellicott City home, where neighborhood children like to play in the woods and streams and wetlands, and where a developer wants to build homes on part of the acreage.

The land is one of the largest undeveloped plots left in Ellicott City and nearby residents, led by Oxenham, are doing their best to keep it that way.

Last night at a sometimes heated county Board of Appeals meeting -- the fifth on the proposed development off Bonnie Branch Road -- Oxenham was cross-examined late into the night by the county's lawyer. The board had not made a decision by deadline.

Ron Wildman, the owner of the land, wants to build 11 single-family homes on a total of about two of the 10 acres. Oxenham has argued that Wildman misled the county Department of Planning and Zoning and should not have been granted a waiver that would allow him to build a road to seven of the 11 homes.

"We're losing 130 acres of forest every day," Oxenham said in her testimony Dec. 8. "And it's areas like this that are becoming more and more precious because there are fewer and fewer of them. And what we are asking here is for the board to recognize that the public interest is that this area be protected."

Wildman has denied wrongdoing and said he has gone out of his way to be environmentally sensitive.

"Somebody was going to buy this property and develop it," he said. "I think they ought to feel lucky that I got it instead of some other people."

Oxenham is not convinced, and she and other residents have done their best to discredit Wildman and his plans.

They have hired a lawyer and paid him about $5,000 on a "semipro-bono" basis, Oxenham said. They have subpoenaed government officials to testify before the board and have brought an environmental expert before it.

Oxenham, 48, a research analyst for the National Academy of Sciences, has devoted a lot of her time to fighting the development. Since April, when she decided to cut back on work, she said that is what she has spent most of her time doing.

She is a member of environmental groups -- the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation -- and heads a subcommittee of the governor's Patapsco River Tributary Strategy Implementation Team.

Like many activists trying to stop development in their back yards, she didn't know much about the Board of Appeals before she started. But she is fiery and energetic and tenacious, and those qualities have propelled her through the arduous appeals process.

She has spent hours in the Board of Appeals office reading documents; made hundreds of dollars' worth of photocopies; interviewed environmentalists and government officials; met with reporters; crafted speeches and written faxes and memos.

Being a research analyst has served her well in her fight against Wildman. She said it is her job to analyze data and make sure it is accurate. Most recently, she said, she analyzed government studies of the ex-Soviet economy and co-edited a book about the former Soviet Union that was published this year. She is working on a doctorate in political science.

After her book was finished in April, Oxenham decided to take some time off. But instead of relaxing, she found herself knee-deep in the appeals process.

She and other citizens fighting the development, and their lawyer, Thomas E. Dernoga of Gray & Dernoga in Highland, told the board they found evidence of wrongdoing at every turn.

In her testimony, Oxenham argued that the developer tried to conceal the existence of a third stream on his property, that he adjusted the tree line to suit his interests and that he was motivated by greed.

Oxenham said she pored over maps and found two different site plans with the same date and concluded that one had been tampered with. At the Dec. 8 Board of Appeals meeting, she said the original map had been "adulterated."

She said she examined property records and discovered that Wildman had bought the property for $105,000 -- a song compared with real estate values in Ellicott City. She presented that as evidence that Wildman stands to make a huge profit.

"One of the things that we recognize as the failure of the communist system is that decisions were made by government dictates and by fiat decision," she said Dec. 8.

"What you have in this case is a property that the marketplace, on the basis of supply and demand, said was worth $105,000. Granting this waiver by government fiat makes this property worth six times that amount," she said.

"I don't think that's the kind of system we support here. I don't think it's a good system, and I think the system should be imposing the environmental regulations that are designed to protect sites like this, not see them devastated."

But Wildman, who heads a firm that advises developers about environmental issues, denied Oxenham's accusations and said he resents her personal attacks. He said he owns the land, has a right to develop it and is more environmentally sensitive than most developers would be.

"I have a hard time saying I'm a tree-hugger anymore, but I try to minimize [damage to the environment] as much as possible," he said.

Oxenham disagrees, and has said that even if the board does not rule in her favor, she is going to fight until the end to save the land.

If she loses, she said she plans to appeal the decision to the Circuit Court and challenge any future waivers that Wildman might need to build on his property.

"Often these cases take 12 years," she said yesterday before the Board of Appeals meeting. "We're prepared to fight 12 years."

Pub Date: 12/16/98

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