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Ethics law violation fails to halt development County official reviewed project of his father-in-law

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Despite a ruling a year ago that the Anne Arundel County official who reviewed the subdivision broke county ethics laws, builders rumbled ahead last week with construction of the 78-home Willow Run development in Pasadena.

Neighbors and a state delegate are demanding a halt to the project because of a relationship between county planning administrator Mark Wedemeyer and the company that won five waivers of county laws to build the subdivision.

"The whole thing smells to high heaven, if you ask me," said Charles Mitchell, 65, a neighbor of the Willow Run subdivision.

Wedemeyer, leader of a team of county planners and engineers who evaluate development proposals in east county, is the son-in-law of Raymond Streib, owner of Development Facilitators Inc. of Severna Park. Wedemeyer worked for Streib's engineering firm before taking his county job in 1994.

The Mandrin Construction Co. of Pasadena hired Streib's company to guide the proposed 88-acre Willow Run subdivision past the opposition of neighbors and through the county land-use office.

Eighty-one neighbors signed petitions opposing the project on Solley Road, with many upset that it would destroy woods where children played and add to traffic congestion.

Wedemeyer said he granted no favors. And Streib said he received no special treatment.

"He is an honest man," Streib said of his son-in-law. "We were treated in the same manner as anybody else. He probably treated us even tougher."

Wedemeyer's supervisors in the land-use office said they detected no preferential treatment. They said the waivers of growth-control laws granted for the Willow Run project are approved for most subdivisions.

Last December, the county's ethics commission issued an opinion criticizing Wedemeyer's decision to review the proposal of his father-in-law's firm. The seven-member panel said Streib had a clear financial interest in Wedemeyer's recommendation for approval.

Steven Cover, director of the county Department of Planning and Code Enforcement, another former employee of Streib's, signs final approvals for subdivisions.

Streib has another connection to the county government.

After he and his company donated $6,400 to former County Executive John G. Gary's campaign in 1994, Gary appointed him to the Planning Advisory Board, which advises the county government on construction projects.

The ethics commission said Wedemeyer should not have participated in the review of his father-in-law's proposals and should refrain in the future.

Wedemeyer said he is following this advice. He said Lori Allen, a subordinate, coordinates his team's review of Development Facilitators' proposals, and passes recommendations on to Wedemeyer's boss.

"If that's what the ethics code says, that a family member can't work on projects that a family member is involved in, then I guess it was wrong," Wedemeyer said. "But did I do something wrong intentionally? No. I wouldn't risk my career for that."

Del.-elect Mary Rosso, who lives near Willow Run and will start representing the 31st District next month, said that having a subordinate handle the reviews seems like a weak safeguard against abuse.

Rosso said the county should halt construction of the subdivision because it granted the waivers of the project unethically.

"I think the whole project should not be allowed to proceed under this questionable circumstance," Rosso said.

As she watched construction from her car on a recent afternoon, six laborers scrambled into a muddy hole to hammer together the wooden frame for a home's foundation.

Nearby, a wooden sign with gold lettering proclaimed the birth of : "The Village of Willow Run Luxury new homes on large lots from the 160's."

Willow Run is not the only subdivision engineered by Development Facilitators Inc. for which Wedemeyer led the review team.

He coordinated the evaluation of a DFI subdivision in Pasadena, a second in Severna Park and a third in Glen Burnie, according to county records and Wedemeyer.

In addition, since last December, Allen, Wedemeyer's subordinate, has led the review of six other subdivisions Streib's company has engineered.

One DFI subdivision Wedemeyer reviewed is the 19-home Meadow Run, south of Mountain Road and east of Long Point Road.

For this 29-acre project, the county waived a growth-control law that would have forced builder G. W. Koch to make $20 million in improvements to Mountain Road, county records show.

After Wedemeyer's review, Cover approved the subdivision in August 1995. This was when the county did not have its moratorium on new subdivisions in the crowded Mountain Road peninsula.

A dozen of the 19 planned vinyl-sided $200,000 homes are built.

Down the road from the pounding of hammers, neighbor Jennifer Crisp stood in her doorway recently and said she is disturbed that the county did not require the builder to make the $20 million in improvements to what she described as a dangerous road.

Connections between the land-use office and Development Facilitators Inc. fuel cynicism, she said. "I think this kind of thing happens quite a lot in local politics," said Crisp, 39, a homemaker. "It's who knows who. It's not ethical."

Cover, DFI's planning director from 1985 to 1988 before taking the same position with the county government, said the land-use office has "absolutely not" performed any favors for DFI.

He said he worked for three construction engineering firms before becoming the head county planner in 1995. He's been careful to remove himself from discussion of any subdivisions he worked on in the private sector, he said.

Joe Elbrich, the county's assistant director of planning and Wedemeyer's direct supervisor, said Wedemeyer had nothing to do with waiving the $20 million in road improvements for Meadow Run.

Elbrich said the county didn't let the developer off without making any improvements to Mountain Road. The county required the developer to fix the intersection of Mountain and Lake Shore roads.

For the Willow Run subdivision, the county granted the developer a waiver of a law that would have required him to widen Solley Road. Elbrich said the county was strict enough with the developer to require him to contribute $300,000 for planning future improvements to Solley Road.

Wedemeyer was responsible for ensuring that the Willow Run project met all county regulations, according to the December 1997 ethics commission report.

"You better not write any of this," Streib, 56, said when approached in his company's Severna Park offices about the company's relationship to Wedemeyer and Cover. "That is a threat."

The civil engineer said his 20-year-old firm has received no help from Cover or Wedemeyer since they started working for the county. He said his position on the county's construction advisory board has not helped DFI.

"Am I not supposed to do any work in the area because [Wedemeyer] is working for the county?" he Streib said. "Am I not supposed to do any more work in the county because Steve Cover used to work for us many years ago? That doesn't make sense. I was doing this business before either one of these guys took a job with the county."

Gary, voted out of the county executive's office in November after critics claimed he was too friendly to developers, said Streib's role as one of his largest contributors had no impact on his administration.

Gary said the ethics commission was "absurd" and "nuts" for criticizing Wedemeyer's dealings with his father-in-law's company. "They use the term 'appearance of a conflict of interest' so stringently, they could make Christ our Savior look like he's done something wrong," Gary said.

Pub Date: 12/22/98

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