Home plan vote today; Lake Falls South balloting to determine support of project; Community leaders divided ; City councilwoman awaiting results of poll before introducing bill

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two weeks after Baltimore's primary election and five weeks before the general contest, a different balloting this weekend has caught the attention of those in North Baltimore -- and at City Hall.

Residents of Lake Falls South are voting on whether to support a proposal by a prominent developer to build 18 single-family homes and 12 semidetached high-priced residences on 9 acres near Falls Road and Lake Avenue just south of the Baltimore County line.

City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, whose 5th District includes the neighborhoods around the property, said she would await the results of the poll -- being conducted door-to-door through today-- before deciding whether to introduce legislation that would allow the proposed development.

The legislation -- called a Planned Unit Development, or PUD -- is necessary to allow the construction of the semidetached units, because the property is zoned for single-family homes.

Because several other neighborhoods in the area are united in their opposition to the $6 million project by Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, Spector said she would not introduce a bill unless a majority of residents in Lake Falls South favor the plan.

Although Spector favors a PUD for the property because of the required community input, she said last week of the plan: "It doesn't have a life if it doesn't have community support."

"If I don't have solid support of the residents of Lake Falls South, I have nothing to work with," she said.

Should the 100-odd property owners in the community along the part of Falls Road that straddles the city and Baltimore County line favor the proposal, Spector could introduce a bill in council as early as tomorrow allowing the development, but she said she would more than likely wait until the next week.

The timing of the bill's introduction is crucial. If it is not introduced by Oct. 4, it is extremely unlikely, if not impossible, that it could have the required hearings and be considered before the term of the council expires Dec. 6.

Any legislation not passed by then would have to be reintroduced after the new council is sworn in three days later and undergo a new round of hearings, delaying construction -- if the project is approved -- until spring.

Even so, Spector said she would not be bound by a timetable tied to the council's term.

"I don't want to see a false deadline," she said. "Even though this council adjourns, there will be a new council."

The proposal that the Lake Falls South Community Association is considering has been modified from preliminary plans submitted by Struever Bros. in late spring to the city and community groups.

Struever Bros. -- acclaimed for its work over a quarter of a century in a wide range of urban development projects, from Brown's Arcade on Charles Street to the American Can Co. in Canton -- has reduced the number of homes from 40 to 30, including a decrease in semidetached homes from 21 to 12, in groups of two.

If the plan is approved, the firm also has pledged to make nearly $100,000 in physical improvements to Lake Falls South, a modest, middle-class community that has its roots as an old mill town.

Those improvements include $20,000 for trees and $15,000 each for walking paths and streetlights.

Struever Bros. has been promoting the proposed development, called Fallslake, where homes are tentatively set to be sold at $180,000 to $225,000. The company hopes to attract young professionals to Baltimore, which is losing 1,000 residents a month.

It says its proposal would help the Chesapeake Bay watershed and fit into Maryland's Smart Growth policy by concentrating development in an area already served by roads and sewers.

Struever Bros. executive Sandy Marenberg said the company has made a convincing case that its development is preferable to having the land developed with up to the 24 single-family homes, which is allowed under the zoning. The difference: The Struever proposal would preserve a good part of the land under a conservation easement.

"It's much better to have a large open space that would never be built on than to spread the development out," said Marenberg, Struever's director of acquisitions and planning.

But not everyone in Lake Falls South is persuaded by the argument.

The community association's leadership is deeply divided.

T. Allen Mott, the association president, prefers the Struever Bros. proposal to a possible single-family development of undetermined design, especially when the promised improvements are taken into consideration.

"Nobody likes development," Mott said. "But I think it's in the best interests of the community to move forward. If we don't approve this, we could have another developer come along and get an architectural nightmare."

But Meme Thomas, the association's vice president, said 11 site plans offered by Struever Bros. have failed to adequately address the traffic and environmental problems that would be created by a development of the density being proposed.

The property "can't accommodate what they're proposing -- period," Thomas said.

In an effort to gauge community sentiment, Thomas circulated a questionnaire to her neighbors. Of 71 responses, 68 were opposed to the project, she said.

But at a meeting Wednesday, association members said the results were skewed by the way the questionnaire was worded and by Thomas' well-known opposition to the project. They decided to appoint five "block captains," none of whom were leaders of the association, to hand-deliver ballots to their neighbors through today. Ballots are to be counted tonight.

One of the captains, Caryn Strauser, whose property backs onto the land, said she was initially opposed to the proposal but has come to support it.

"I've been impressed with Struever Bros., the way they've been willing to work with the community," she said. "They're going to leave this great big tree right behind me."

Most residents of nearby neighborhoods remain unconvinced about the project's merits.

Hal MacLaughlin, president of the Greater Falls Road Neighborhood Task Force, an umbrella organization, said his group and community associations representing Mount Washington, Poplar Hill, Roland Park North and others are opposed to the project.

"Why in light of this overwhelming opposition is there any consideration of a PUD for this piece of property?" MacLaughlin said.

MacLaughlin, whose Poplar Hill home abuts the property, calls the proposal "high-density development," which he said "does not conform to the character or nature of the surrounding communities" of single-family homes.

MacLaughlin said he also is worried about environmental and traffic problems.

Traffic also is a worry of Baltimore County. Public Works Director Charles R. Olsen has labeled as "substandard" two access roads to the site that run between the city and county.

Leigh Middleditch, president of the Poplar Hill Community Association, said he believes the property could comfortably accommodate 17 to 20 single-family homes.

"Poplar Hill is not against development," he said. "We want the right development."

Pub Date: 9/26/99

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