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Resident muscle defeated track; Board rejected site after neighbors rallied

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A vote that took less than 30 seconds ended a remarkable yearlong battle between the most organized of neighbors and the most wealthy of developers this week.

The residents won.

The Maryland Port Administration advisory board's decision Wednesday not to lease port land in Anne Arundel County for an auto racetrack leaves the developers with some undesirable choices. They can keep searching for that possibly nonexistent location where neighbors like them, or they can give up after five years and $5 million spent trying to get a 61,000-seat racetrack built in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

The vote, above all, showed the growing power of neighborhood groups to slow and obstruct even the most well-connected and powerful developers.

Victorious residents, stunned developers and state officials trying to keep the potentially revenue-rich auto track proposal alive all say they have learned a tremendous amount during the long and contentious history of this development fight.

Chesapeake Motorsports Development Corp. officials say they still would like to build in Maryland even after being shooed out of Baltimore County and two sites in Anne Arundel. They have been fielding calls since Wednesday from interested officials in Frederick and other counties.

State officials said most developers in Chesapeake's situation would have picked up and moved out long ago. But Missy Berge, Chesapeake's chief operating officer, was born and raised near Baltimore and that's where she wants to do business.

"If this is going to happen, it has to happen with the blessing of the state," Chesapeake lawyer Robert C. Douglas said, "because we cannot end up a year from now where we are today. We've realized it just doesn't work from the bottom up. We're not asking for state subsidies or tax benefits or money. We just want a place to call home."

That has been a difficult request to satisfy. Keith Watkins, vice president of corporate locations for the Greater Baltimore Alliance, which guided the group to Anne Arundel, said hundreds of acres of land are needed for a track the size Chesapeake wants. In addition, the land must be zoned right and isolated from stores and houses.

Few parcels in the Baltimore region fit that description.

"As we have found out from this project, it is especially hard to site these things," Watkins said. "I think it speaks to this particular developer's preseverance and passion for the project. Anyone else would have gone elsewhere after their first experience or held the state and local governments hostage for incentives to stay."

The developers say they have gotten inquiries from Howard and Carroll counties. But officials there say they would likely have a difficult time locating in either place because big plots are either sparse or not zoned for tracks.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey joked with his staff yesterday morning as they emerged from a meeting, saying: "Anybody here want a racetrack? If so, you're fired."

Carroll County officials said that little land is available for such a venture. But in Frederick County, Brian Duncan, director of economic development, said: "There could be communities within Frederick County that could be interested in the racetrack. There are opportunities here." Wherever they end up, developers acknowledged there are a few things they will not try again.

The biggest irony in the developer's Anne Arundel experience is that what seemed to be a big break last April -- the former County Council passed legislation allowing developers to move toward construction quickly -- helped do them in. The legislation galvanized residents angry over what they saw as fast-track, insider legislation that left them out of the approval process.

Citizens Against the Racing Stadium Site went into action, setting up a network across the Pasadena peninsula, firing off messages by phone and newsletter. More than 1,000 homeowners in 23 communities researched the site and the history of the developers. They lobbied council members and candidates running for office, making demands for anti-track statements and platforms.

Pasadena Councilman Thomas Redmond, a strong track supporter who held campaign fund-raisers with NASCAR logos, was ousted in the primary. A. Shirley Murphy, who admonished developers from the beginning, was elected.

When asked by Anne Arundel Community College what was the most important issue in the fall elections, Pasadena residents resoundingly said the racetrack. Voters ousted County Executive John G. Gary, a track advocate, in November.

"There were some people opposed to the track that would never have been satisfied no matter what," Douglas said. "But [the April] legislation enabled them to join hands with people upset with the process and that gave the group a really strong base."

When NASCAR officials said in late April that they were not planning to host events in Baltimore, Chesapeake, which had been promising NASCAR excitement, lost credibility with the residents. By the time County Executive Janet Owens took office in December, making increasingly stronger statements that the site in Pasadena was inappropriate, opponents smelled victory.

For opponents who amassed thousands of records on motor racing, the port and the environment, the vote this week brought vindication. Outmatched by the developers' resources, staff and political clout such as John Gary, they wielded their advantages.

Rev. James Kirk rallied his congregation at Harundale Presbyterian Church. Longtime environmentalist Mary Rosso, recently elected to the General Assembly, pulled in some of the same people who had fought BGE over fly ash and industrial waste in North County. CARSS leaders Marcia Drenzyk, Rebecca Kolberg and Rosso contacted presidents of community associations across the peninsula. They found community elders, like 90-year-old Lewis Bellinger, with long, institutional memories who held the county and the port to promises made decades ago.

When developers offered the county a map showing parking places on land county environmentalist deemed wetlands in the 1980s, residents called them on it. Others reminded port authorities of old promises that land where the track was proposed would be used for a factory or warehouse.

They read the developers' studies and reports and compared them with other racetracks across the country, finding discrepancies in noise and traffic predictions. Armed with all this information, they convinced elected officials to side with them. Or voted out the ones who didn't agree.

"We were completely clueless when we started," said Drenzyk, who spent entire weekends studing the track proposal. " but we learned so much from this, and now there is a link between all these communities on the peninsula. We all know each other now. And I would just say, beware to the next person who tries to do something like this in the dead of night on our peninsula again."

Staff Writers Mary Gail Hare and Larry Carson contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/12/99

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