State converting rented homes for tourism; Money-making plan for park properties upsets 20-year tenants

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A chilly wind slaps at the last of autumn's crimson and gold high above Allan and Mary Holtzman's old home, a glorious woodland setting near Hereford where they exchanged marriage vows almost 20 years ago in the front yard and raised their two children.

During that time, they've wrapped their memories in one of Maryland's best-kept secrets: a two-story stone and wood house and barn amid precious wild land in Gunpowder Falls State Park in northern Baltimore County.

But their landlord -- the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) -- wants the Holtzmans to leave their longtime home by July, as part of a statewide effort to convert such leased homes into tourist cottages.

The "Nature Tourism Initiative," which affects 21 renters around Maryland under the little-known rental program, has angered conservationists and neighbors of the Holtzman family. The plan was initiated this year, the brainchild of Ranger Rick Barton, head of the state park rangers.

Where the state sees a property that can be rented for private retreats and to fishermen and honeymooners, others worry about an increase in human, vehicle and horse traffic and misuse of protected public woodland for profit.

"DNR tried to sneak this past the public," said Erica Parker, chairwoman for the Greater Baltimore Sierra Club. "No one knows what the state will do and how the Holtzman house will change. DNR should not turn a profit from our state parks."

Said Ted Krug, who lives on a granite rise above the Holtzman house: "Will there be more sewage, motorcycle gangs renting out the place? There hasn't been one public meeting on this, and it makes you wonder what DNR is hiding."

Dating to the 1950s, taxpayers have, on a first-come, first-served basis, rented houses and cabins on state parkland. Rent is based on the appraised value of their properties and with the understanding their leases could be terminated in 30 days.

Overall, 115 permanent parkland tenants are reported statewide, ranging from the Western Maryland mountains to an island near Crisfield on the Eastern Shore. Those affected by the initiative are renting properties state officials see as the most convertible and potentially lucrative. The 15,000-acre Gunpowder park has 25 year-round rental properties.

Barton said the conversion of the rental homes to tourist destinations "fits with the mentality of more efficient use of our properties and bringing in more money."

Only recently has the state started to make up for 30 years of funding neglect, officials said, with Gov. Parris N. Glendening announcing a $9 million refurbishment program this month for state parks, spread over three years.

Park officials say more is needed. Profits from the nature tourism initiative will go into a "special fund, money that goes straight back into the parks," Barton said.

Officials estimate the 50-year-old Holtzman house is large enough for eight people. The horse stables could be rented, and the barn's loft could be converted to overflow lodging. If fully occupied, the property could generate about $45,000 a year in rentals, compared with the $8,200 the Holtzman's pay.

Some welcome such a move, including Wally Vait, owner of a store on nearby Monkton Road that caters to fishermen. He says a rental cottage within walking distance of the Gunpowder River is a good idea.

"The Gunpowder is a blue-ribbon trout stream that attracts fishermen from all over the country," Vait said. "When visiting fishermen visit the area from out of state, they have to stay in Timonium or Cockeysville. Just this week, I took two college students from California out on the river to fish."

But Carol Trela of the Long Green Valley Association, a community group that closely monitors the park, is among those who question the ethics of a state agency involved in a money-making venture on state land.

"Where does it stop, who'll be watching?" she asked about the possible development of other DNR tourist lodges. "Will these locations become private play preserves for politicians, other VIPs?"

Others warn of environmental damage.

"The state plan to convert the house into a rented cottage is a dangerous and destructive precedent in a fragile wild land," said Louise Matzinger, chairwoman of a committee that crafted a master plan for Gunpowder Park's future in 1983. "Bush Cabin Run goes through the property into the Gunpowder River nearby. Wildlife like owls and beaver abound in the area, and a diverse woodland surrounds the property."

The Holtzmans say they have been left bruised by their dealings with DNR. In June, after what the couple call nearly 20 happy years on the property, they were suddenly given a 30-day notice to vacate. State officials postponed that until July, moved by health needs of the Holtzmans' daughter, who was about to enter her senior year of high school.

The Holtzmans have a son in college and have occasionally been hard-pressed for money because of medical problems. They acknowledge they took advantage of the unusual housing opportunity.

"It's not that we aren't grateful," said Allan Holtzman, a researcher in the library at the Johns Hopkins University. Living amid the old walnut, oak and hickory trees and for such low rent -- $150 a month in the late 1970s, $700 a month now -- has been a joy, he said.

But since they were ordered to move, "DNR has run roughshod over us," he said. "We will suffer, and this wonderful natural resource will suffer."

Susan O'Brien, a DNR spokeswoman, said the state has tried to deal fairly with the family and with other renters affected by the program.

"We're not in the business of putting people out in the street," she said. "We have bent over backward for the Holtzman family."

Another family, officials said, is facing a move from their home in Rocky Gap State Park and had its lease extended to July 2000 because they have a child in high school.

Mary Holtzman, who works at a day care center, has regularly taken groups of young children into the park to teach nature classes. She too is angry about DNR's plan to open a rental cottage.

"They've [DNR] done no study, heard no public input. They've just decreed what they are going to do with the house in the middle of an incredibly beautiful woodland," she said. "But they've also done another thing. [They've] been so cavalier about something close to our hearts -- our home for 20 years."

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