Another proposal to build east end; Failing years ago, developer has new idea for woodlands


Leonard P. Berger, the pugnacious developer who once wanted to transform his woodlands and fields on the Chesapeake Bay into the "Harborplace of Baltimore County," has a more modest proposal for a few hundred homes.

But before the first blueprint is unfurled, Berger faces not only a dizzying array of environmental and zoning hurdles but also challenges from skeptical property owners and at least one key politician.

"There's no way that land will be developed, no way," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, an Essex Democrat.

The battle could pit those fearful that the sparsely populated lower peninsula could become "White Marsh south" against others who insist the economic vitality of the county's struggling east side is at stake.

Through his Holly Neck Limited Partnership, Berger is seeking to rezone more than 500 acres of choice land, including 1 1/2 miles of Chesapeake Bay waterfront. The request is one of 400 filed in the county's comprehensive rezoning process, which occurs every four years.

Michael Davis, aide to County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, said Berger's latest move is puzzling. "We're surprised he didn't talk with Councilman Gardina or the executive before he came in with his proposal," he said. "That almost poisons the issue before you start the process."

Berger, who unsuccessfully sought to have his property rezoned three times during the 1980s, said he now wants to build housing for elderly citizens -- a big departure from his earlier vision of a waterfront mecca that would attract investors, boaters and tourists.

"It's not a tourist destination, just a residential plan," Berger said. "Development of the peninsula would boost an area that has been "chronically economically deprived," he said in his current proposal.

Berger's reappearance after a decade of inactivity has some residents wondering about the aims of the Parkville physician-turned-developer.

"Everybody wants to know why now," said Al Clasing, a Holly Neck Road resident who led previous fights against Berger.

"What's different today is Berger looks around and sees $250,000 homes being built down here. We finally have a sewer line and that maybe he can get his foot in the door," said Clasing. "If a senior citizen facility is all he has in mind, that can be very positive."

Berger could find that the county's 173-mile shoreline has become increasingly difficult to develop because of environmental concerns.

This year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected a proposal by marina owners to dredge several east side creeks because of underwater vegetation.

"He'll [Berger] find it tougher than 10 years ago," said Wayne Miskiewicz, president of the Marine Trades Association of Baltimore County.

Berger and his team of planners and engineers will find that the peninsula has undergone other changes.

Last year, the county and state approved more than $5 million to designate about 15,000 acres -- much of it surrounding Berger's land -- as a protected Rural Legacy area on the peninsula. The county, through a private nonprofit group called Trust for Public Land, is attempting to purchase another 600 acres of privately owned land adjacent to Berger's.

If the county is successful, much of Berger's tract will be surrounded by protected woods and marsh, a move that could enhance his holdings at Holly Neck.

Berger will have to consider this changed development climate as he attempts to convince officials of his plans for the lower peninsula -- a rich ecosystem on land barely above sea level.

Residents wary of Berger note his aggressive reputation in local business enterprises and in Ocean City.

Since the 1970s, Berger has amassed properties like hotels and a night club in Ocean City and has several holdings in the Baltimore area. While he was principal owner of Baltimore County's first cable television venture, Berger in 1983 sold Calvert Telecommunications Inc. to Comcast Cable Corp. for $110 million.

Berger first attempted to develop Holly Neck when he proposed a large-scale development on a cove on the bay. He wanted to build a marina, hotel, conference center, restaurants, stores and hundreds of homes to create the "Harborplace of Baltimore County."

But the area lacked sewer lines, and Berger's proposal failed to gather political support, although he was an ally of local leaders and acted as adviser to then-County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson.

Unable to develop his Holly Neck land, Berger sold a nearby 87-acre property in 1994 to the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which used it as a drainage pool. The purchase price of $726,843 was more than triple the $200,000 assessed value -- evidence of how valuable land is on the peninsula.

In 1995, Berger was still envisioning a grand concept for Holly Neck, said Gardina.

"He had dropped the Harborplace angle, but he still wanted to go high-end, like Annapolis," said Gardina, recalling a meeting with Berger and Ruppersberger.

This time, Berger said, he wants to carve large parcels of open space in his development and be sensitive to the bay. He'll have to get county approval to hook into the relatively small sewer system that has been installed in recent years on the peninsula.

"I've dreamed of developing that area for a long time," said Berger, who has homes in Florida and Ocean City.

Some residents want to listen to Berger. For others, sentiments have not changed.

"We're not unreasonable people but any development at Holly Neck involves the bay and protected wetlands," said Carl Maynard, Back River Neck Peninsula Association president and a resident of the area for 30 years. "There are those fearful of a peaceful community becoming 'White Marsh south' with all of its congestion."

Hutchinson, now president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, recalls his 1984 decision opposing the extension of sewer lines to the peninsula, in effect, killing Berger's plan.

"It was something I had to do, but times have changed," said Hutchinson, born and raised in Essex.

"The east side area needs investors, those who can pump new life into the area," he said. "But the beautiful land and water must be respected."

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