THE QUESTION IS everywhere now. It arrives when C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger strolls through a neighborhood, or goes out for a meal. Somebody asked him about it at a funeral service. It is part of the air he breathes. The most worried people in Baltimore County approach him to ask: Why do you want to take away our homes?
And Ruppersberger, the suddenly beleaguered Baltimore County executive, explains that he doesn't, that the forces of fear are at work, and the anxiety about this Senate Bill 509 has taken on a weird life of its own. And then he wonders if anyone is listening.
Senate Bill 509 would allow the county to purchase 39 parcels of land. It is land that has frustrated Ruppersberger and all those with eyes that see. When he took office seven years ago, Ruppersberger vowed to pay attention to blighted county neighborhoods that were previously ignored - and this is a dramatic gesture in that direction.
For the past couple of years, to talk to Ruppersberger is to get a rundown on money and the creation of jobs: 38,000 new jobs across the county, new roads and schools and neighborhood renovations, about $867 million spent on a wide range of physical improvements - and some areas utterly resistant to money, some areas economically depressed, and some where the police are called repeatedly and the drug traffic has changed everything.
And those are the areas Ruppersberger wants the county to purchase - which has set off not only the fears of people who keep coming up to him to ask about their homes, but a vote set for November on the original bill.
"We are talking about 39 parcels in the entire county," Ruppersberger said very carefully Tuesday morning in his Towson office. "That is 0.0002 percent of all acreage in the county. That's what it is, three very small areas. And people who worry that we're taking away their homes? There are two owner-occupied homes in the whole bill. That's it, two of them. It's real specific. One is a woman who has a boarding house for 10 men and owns a liquor store next to a Catholic church. The other is an elderly man, and we're going to work through that. We won't have to use that condemnation."
Other people, though, would be affected - about 900 families who rent and would be displaced. Some are in the Essex-Middle River area, others in Dundalk and in northwest Baltimore County's Liberty Road area.
"There are places down there," Ruppersberger said, "that haven't seen a paintbrush in 20 years." He is talking about the Essextowne and Kingsley Park developments in Essex, and the Yorkway apartments in Dundalk, and the Villages of Huntington in Randallstown. He mentions drugs and prostitution and thousands of police calls a year.
"Some of these places were built during World War II," he said. "They're old, they're in disrepair, the living conditions are terrible. In fact, when we take Christmas presents to families in December, it's cold, they have their stoves on for heat. We're not talking about neighborhoods, but distressed people, and children who can't get out of that situation the way it is."
But the issue is bigger than two owner-occupied homes, or 900 renters who could move to other apartments in the area. It is the ancient, philosophical question about the sanctity of one's home - and the fear of faceless government throwing around its muscle.
"And this is what distresses me," Ruppersberger said, "the thought that I would ever allow something like that to happen. My job is to lead people, and help people. My opponents are telling people, 'Dutch is gonna take your property.' They're scaring people. When I took this job, I vowed I would take care of these older neighborhoods. I'm not gonna walk away from that."
Part of this is Ruppersberger's memory at work.
He grew up in Baltimore, and saw city neighborhoods several decades ago hit by some of the same problems that have reached the county. He does not wish to preside over the same problems in the same overwhelmed-by-it-all manner of City Hall officials of that era.
"You go down to Dundalk, and there isn't a prouder community anywhere," he said. "But everywhere you go, people tell you about the Yorkway apartment complex, which is a crime haven like Tall Trees in Essex. It's been the cancer of that area for a long time, and there are good people who live there who don't know what to do. That's why the bill is limited, and the actual addresses are put into it.
"Some of this is a matter of people understanding what we're trying to do. I understand some of the anxiety. But, you know, if you don't do these things, you wouldn't have Harborplace, or the Bay Bridge, or Camden Yards. The public was against all three of those. And look where they are now. And we have to look ahead in Baltimore County."
This isn't Big Brother invading people's homes. It's the realization that pieces of Baltimore County have decayed beyond redemption, and that tough choices have to be made: to allow further deterioration, and lives coming undone, or to start fresh.