In his fight against the county, Richard Impallaria thinks the government is trying to take him down with a sucker punch.
Impallaria, 37, who owns an auto body shop in Middle River, says he believes he is being harassed by government officials who might be angry over his outspoken criticism of Baltimore County's proposal to condemn land for economic development.
State and county inspectors have visited his business twice in the past three weeks. They haven't issued violations but have warned him that the 40-year-old spray-painting booth in his shop doesn't comply with regulations and that the building might have other code problems.
Impallaria thinks the timing is more than a coincidence.
"I knew it was going to happen," he said. "I've never seen them out here before. Just like we've been saying from the very beginning, they want to run us out of business."
Representatives of the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Baltimore County Fire Department say Impallaria has not been targeted for his activism. An environmental inspector visited him because of an anonymous complaint about paint fumes, and a county fire marshal was trying to resolve a paperwork problem, they said.
A vocal critic
A newcomer to the Middle River business district, Impallaria is fast making a name for himself as one of the most vocal critics of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger's latest economic development plan. The proposal would allow the county to condemn land and give it or sell it to developers.
Impallaria has testified in Annapolis against the bill that would confer condemnation power on the county. He has also organized community meetings that have attracted hundreds of east-county residents.
Impallaria says he believes he is being punished for his views.
"I think Dutch Ruppersberger is making the calls, without a doubt," he says. "That's the way they've been playing all along."
A spokeswoman for Ruppersberger said the allegation is untrue.
"It's inconceivable that this administration would do anything like that," said county spokeswoman Elise Armacost. "It's absolutely ridiculous to think that Dutch would stoop to those tactics."
The situation highlights mounting tensions over Senate Bill 509, which Ruppersberger has made his top priority in Annapolis this year. The executive is seeking $22 million in state funds for economic redevelopment in Essex-Middle River, Dundalk and Randallstown. The plan calls for demolishing hundreds of working-class and low-income apartments. Displaced residents will be offered assistance in finding new homes.
Many residents are outraged that they learned of the plan only after the bill was filed in Annapolis. They fear that condemnation power could be expanded to cover more than the 312 addresses specified in the bill.
Impallaria says he would like to keep his auto body business, and had hoped to add boat slips to his waterfront land to generate more income. Recent visits from inspectors, however, raise the possibility that he'll have to make expensive equipment purchases and that he'll still lose his land to the county.
Susan Woods, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said an inspector visited My Body Shop on March 16 after receiving an anonymous complaint about odors.
The inspector discovered that Impallaria's paint booth was not registered with the state as required. Because it is 40 years old, it doesn't have to meet current air-quality regulations, but it must be registered.
"We are going to work with the owner to get it registered," Woods said. "He will still have to meet odor and nuisance regulations."
On Wednesday, Impallaria received a visit from a county fire marshal, who pointed out that his paint booth was not equipped with all the fire protection equipment required by current code. The marshal said he would issue a report in about two weeks.
Fire Department spokesman Mark Hubbard said the marshal visited the property to resolve a mix-up over whether two or three businesses operate from the address. The marshal then spotted other violations, though Impallaria had passed his annual fire inspection a few weeks earlier.
Hubbard said the impact on Impallaria should be minimal.
"We try to be reasonable in applying the code," Hubbard said. "It's not severe life-safety issue. It's a small shop. More than likely, we are not going to lower the boom on him."
Impallaria bought the commercial building from the Baltimore-American Ice Co. in September for $165,000, state tax records show. He immediately placed it on the market, as725,000 with another buyer.
Impallaria said he will continue to oppose the bill even though he stands to make hundreds of thousands on an investment that is a few months old.
"I'm going to fight it anyway," he said, "because it's wrong."