Persuasion, permission and politics; Speed shift: Baltimore County's executive is willing to gamble that he can win hearts and minds in the development debate.


A SAYING circulates in the plush mezzanine level of the old court house in Towson, where the Baltimore County executive has his offices.

It is better to ask for forgiveness, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and his top aides tell each other, than for permission.

The maxim captures the confidence and purposefulness that marks the Ruppersberger administration. It may also explain how a proposal to redevelop sections of Essex-Middle River, Dundalk and Randallstown through the power of eminent domain became a quagmire that forced the county executive into a tricky escape maneuver last week.

Facing unexpected hostility toward his redevelopment plans, Ruppersberger surprised many observers on Monday by signing a petition launched by his opponents to place the condemnation issue on the November ballot. The move came just six weeks after state lawmakers gave final approval to Ruppersberger's hard-fought plan.

Before the vote this fall, he said, he plans to debate his adversaries seven times, to persuade voters that his proposal is a limited tool that complements a broader vision for preserving aging neighborhoods.

"I thought about how I could get my message out," Ruppersberger said last week. "The only way was to go to the public."

That's different from what he thought just four months ago.

Then, Ruppersberger figured the best way to gain the new condemnation power was by working the hallways of the state capital, asking the General Assembly to approve his law before the issue had been debated in communities.

"He is trying to have it both ways," said Del. James F. Ports Jr., a Perry Hall Republican who voted against the plan. "He didn't take input from the community. Now that he and other elected officials are taking the heat, now all of a sudden they want to include the community."

In short, Ruppersberger would have preferred to ask for forgiveness from voters upset by his redevelopment plans.

Instead, he is asking for their permission.

The strategy may be Ruppersberger's best way out of a political mess, observers say, but the outcome is not guaranteed.

If the question makes it to the ballot and gets rejected - a possibility in a county where distrust of government runs high - Ruppersberger would suffer an embarrassing setback two years before his expected run for governor.

"It's a calculated risk," said Del. Joseph J. "Sonny" Minnick, the Dundalk Democrat who heads the county's House delegation. "It caught me by surprise, too, when he did it. His strategy is good; his reason for doing it is the right reason. I just hope it works out for him. It could backfire."

Says County Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder, "If it gets on the ballot, there is a fairly good likelihood it will be overturned."

Ruppersberger unveiled his condemnation plan in January, just days before the beginning of the General Assembly session. Before community groups could digest the proposal, a bill had been introduced in Annapolis granting the county a new power. In addition to the right to take land for traditional government projects such as schools, parks and roads, the county would be able to take property for projects to be built by private developers.

If residents wanted to speak out against the idea - and many of them did - they would have to travel to Annapolis, a 45-minute car ride away.

Still, opposition mounted. For several weeks, Ruppersberger spent nearly every day in the state capital, trying to allay the concerns of state lawmakers feeling heat from constituents.

As residents and business owners griped about being ignored, Ruppersberger earned his victory last month when the General Assembly gave final approval to SB 509.

But the debate didn't end.

Led by two state lawmakers, Ports and Del. Diane DeCarlo of White Marsh, opponents launched a petition drive to recall the measure. If they collect 24,100 registered voter signatures by the end of next month, voters in November will decide the law's fate.

Organizers fanned across county neighborhoods. Petitions popped up at the Towsontown Spring Festival, at the Motor Vehicle Administration office in Essex, at the GOP's Lincoln Day Dinner.

A week ago, while attending a service for police officers and firefighters who died in the line of duty, Ruppersberger says he was approached by a Dundalk resident who lived far from the blocks targeted for redevelopment.

" 'You've done more for us than anybody, Dutch,' " Ruppersberger says the man told him. " 'But why are you going to take our house away?' "

It was then, Ruppersberger said, he realized the public relations battle had been lost."It really bothered me that I couldn't get my message out," he said. "That got me. I really mean that."

Ruppersberger and other supporters charge their opponents with fear-mongering and fact-distortion. The bill lists only those specific addresses that the government is interested in, and will not be expanded to include other areas of the county, they say.

Other counties and Baltimore City, supporters point out, have broader authority to take any land they want for economic development.

The neighborhoods that county officials are targeting have clamored for help for years. In Dundalk, the county's plans call for razing a crime-infested section of Yorkway apartments. In Essex-Middle River, the county wants to boost an underutilized waterfront, creating upscale marinas and restaurants.

On Liberty Road in Randallstown, officials want to remove vacant strip shopping centers and empty apartments near Old Court Road.

Still, Ruppersberger's plans rekindle painful history for some. From urban renewal projects in the 1960s to the Moving to Opportunity program to relocate city residents in the early 1990s, county residents - particularly on the east side - have loudly opposed government programs to take land.

Many of the critics of Ruppersberger's plan opposed those earlier ideas.

Uncharacteristically, Ruppersberger now admits that he erred in not seeking community cooperation earlier.

"His one mistake was not coming out before and negotiating with those people," said Minnick. "Maybe if he came out earlier and did it a little more gently, he might have gotten a little more sympathy and support."

If nothing else, Ruppersberger's endorsement of the petition drive released some steam last week. In fact, organizers say they are fielding inquiries from volunteers about whether they need to keep getting signatures. Can't Dutch just put the question on the referendum himself, they wonder? The answer is no.

That raises the prospect of perhaps the best of all outcomes for the executive. If the petition drive falters, and number of signatures falls short, Dutch will look like a real winner: he got his law through the General Assembly, he backed public participation, but in the end still got just what he wanted.

David Nitkin covers Baltimore County government for The Sun.

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