Zoning panel votes to clip Rite Aid chief's chopper; Green Spring Valley dispute began in '97


These are tough times for Martin Grass.

The chairman of drug-store giant Rite Aid Corp. has watched the chain's stock slide nearly 75 percent in the past 10 months. His company is laying off workers and faces a lawsuit in Florida for overbilling.

And now Grass might not be able to fly his helicopter to work.

The Baltimore County Board of Appeals ruled yesterday that Grass can't use a corner of his neighbor's property in the Green Spring Valley for the helicopter that shuttles him between his Maryland home and the company's Harrisburg, Pa., area headquarters.

The noise is a nuisance to neighbors, and zoning laws don't allow the flights, the board said.

The decision marks the latest development -- but not the final chapter -- in a long and costly feud between Grass and his neighbors in the rolling horse country of Baltimore County. The helicopter flights could continue for months while the case is appealed, a move expected by all sides.

Still, neighbors reveled in their victory yesterday.

"It reinforces what we've been saying all along, that this is an historic agricultural area," said Jack Dillon, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council Inc., a not-for-profit preservation group based in Towson.

Appeal is 'likely'

Grass' attorney, David Gildea, would not answer specific questions about the decision, saying he wanted to wait for the board's written ruling, expected within two months.

But he said it was "likely" that he would file an appeal in Baltimore County Circuit Court, where it could take months to be heard.

Before yesterday's hearing, Grass' neighbors said they were skeptical of their chances for victory, saying that the county zoning and appeals process was slanted in favor of developers and business interests.

"We've been trying to win these cases for years, and we finally won," said G. Macy Nelson, an attorney for the planning council and several Green Spring Valley neighbors. "This is the beginning of a new era. Up until now, the developers always won."

But appeals board member Lawrence Stahl rejected the characterization, saying cases are decided on facts.

"We bounce back and forth between being the villain and the hero," Stahl said.

The dispute began in 1997, when Grass began landing his helicopter in a cornfield near the $2 million home he had purchased three years earlier. When neighbors complained, Grass moved the chopper to Helmore Farm, a nearby horse farm where a little-used landing strip had been carved into one corner more than four decades ago.

Neighbors continued to object, prompting the county to impose daily $200 fines which went unpaid for several months. In August 1998, a county zoning commissioner ruled that because the Helmore airstrip already existed, Grass could take off and land once a day.

The county Board of Appeals overturned that decision yesterday. The board found that the landing pad meets the definition of an airstrip, but not an airport.

The distinction is arcane but important: Airports, already subject to strict building regulations, are allowed by special permission under the county's zoning laws; airstrips are not.

The panel also concluded that helicopters should not be allowed because of the rural nature of Green Spring Valley.

'Be patient'

But neighbors shouldn't be surprised if Grass keeps flying in the next several months, said Arnold Jablon, the county's head of permits and development management.

"You've got to be patient, and it's tough for people to be patient," Jablon said. "The system that we have and the due process takes time."

Nelson, the neighbors' attorney, wants to speed things up.

"I think he does not have the legal right to land there tonight," Nelson said. "If he lands there tonight and takes off tomorrow, we will probably seek an injunction."

Pub Date: 10/06/99

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