It began as a ho-hum dispute over a strip of grass in one of Baltimore County's older neighborhoods.
The business owner wanted to expand his garden center. The homeowners next door were hoping the land could be preserved. Neither side was budging.
Then two influential aides to Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, special assistants Michael H. Davis and Robert J. Barrett, taking a page from their boss' playbook, were dispatched to broker a deal that would make all sides happy.
Furious over a zoning decision and subsequent compromise they say was reached illegally and behind their backs, homeowners Ruth and Ernest Baisden spent five years taking their fight to Baltimore County Circuit Court. On April 25, a judge ruled in their favor in a decision that delivered a stinging rebuke to the Ruppersberger administration.
Circuit Judge Robert N. Dugan chastised Davis and Barrett for negotiating an "improper, nonbinding and extrajudicial agreement" with Terry Gerahty, owner of Poor Boys garden and plant center on Taylor Avenue in Parkville.
When the county Board of Appeals upheld the arrangement, it "rubber-stamped an inappropriate political intervention into the zoning process and therefore erred in recognizing, interpreting and applying the law," Dugan wrote.
Observers say the dispute, an everyday fracas between neighbors, provides a revealing glimpse into the art of compromise as practiced by the Ruppersberger administration. That glimpse was afforded by the convergence of unrelenting neighborhood activists and a judge willing to criticize a popular county executive.
Dugan won his seat in a March 2000 election by defeating Circuit Judge Alexander Wright, whom Ruppersberger supported. Davis, who is also a political consultant, was paid $6,000 to manage Wright's campaign.
J. Carroll Holzer, the Towson attorney who handled the Baisden's case, said he thinks the couple's plight is all too common.
"I think this is an example of how the world operates, and this just happens to be put in the posture that it is captured in the record," Holzer said. "Absent the fact that these people are tenacious and won't let up, this would not have been brought to light."
"I am so frustrated at the system sometimes," he said. "In the Army, I was in JAG. This would have been called 'command influence' in a court martial."
In a brief interview Friday, Ruppersberger said Barrett and Davis - who left his county post last year - were simply doing their jobs. The Baisdens called his office complaining that Gerahty was not living up to an agreement on the property in dispute, he said.
"We are in the service business. That's what we do," said Ruppersberger, adding that because Baltimore County was not a party in the court case, officials couldn't tell their side of the story. "The testimony was uncontradicted," Ruppersberger said.
Others say community interests sometimes take a back seat in the Ruppersberger administration, which prides itself on job creation and good relations with business leaders and owners.
"The level playing field is unbalanced because of money," said Donna Spicer, executive director of the Loch Raven Community Council. "A lot of times, whoever has the biggest pot of gold wins."
The case began in 1996, when Gerahty requested that 2 acres of residential property adjacent to his Taylor Avenue garden shop be rezoned for business use so that he could add parking and a plant sales and storage area.
The Baisdens, the closest homeowners, said they were never notified of the request and felt they should have been. Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder approved the rezoning, but only after Gerahty reached an agreement with the Villa Cresta Neighborhood Association to create a 70-foot buffer between his business and Oak Avenue, bounded by a wood stockade fence.
The Baisdens, who live on Oak Avenue and whose side yard borders Gerahty's property, say he never lived up to the agreement.
In 1997, county Deputy Zoning Commissioner Timothy M. Kotroco ruled in a variance request that the fence had to be built to meet the requirements of the legal agreement with the homeowners association.
A few months later, Gerahty met with Davis and Barrett to talk about the fence. It isn't clear who initiated the meeting.
According to court documents, the meeting was held in the executive's offices in Towson and lasted about 90 minutes. The executive's aides agreed that the fence should be installed within 24 hours.
Gerahty complied, but the Baisdens say he put up a temporary fence rather than a permanent one and installed it 10 feet closer to Oak Street than he was supposed to.
The Baisdens said they never knew about the meeting in Towson or the resulting arrangement. They learned about it in 1999, when Gerahty requested - and was granted - another hearing before Kotroco to amend the zoning commissioner's earlier ruling. This time, Kotroco changed his mind and allowed the fence to stay, in effect endorsing the agreement reached by the executive's office.
"I felt it was a violation of my rights," Ruth Baisden said. "Everything was promised before the rezoning. Everything was going to be done right. After the rezoning, everything was not followed through. Then the burden became the community's. It became our burden to follow through the process."
Kotroco said Davis and Barrett "never came to me and told me to alter my decision in any way." He changed his mind, he said, after looking at the property. He said the buffer zone was serving its purpose whether at 60 feet or 70 feet.
"I think I just applied some logic and good old common sense," Kotroco said. "Making Terry move that fence 10 feet is going to do nothing other than make the fence guy some money. ... Doing right doesn't always coincide with what the law says."
The Baisdens and Gerahty appealed Kotroco's 1999 ruling to the Board of Appeals, the Baisdens over the fence issue and Gerahty because of lighting requirements. The board said the fence could stay where it was.
The Baisdens appealed to Circuit Court and so did Gerahty, who was dissatisfied with various provisions in the appeals board's ruling.
Gerahty says he's thankful that county officials took an interest in his case.
"The county has worked hard on this. The county has put way more taxpayer money into this than they should have," he said. "I'm a businessman. If it's cheaper to please [the neighbors], I'll please them. Who knows what they want? It's personal."
Ruth Baisden says she's fighting for her property rights and to preserve the integrity of zoning laws for the rest of the county.
"We stuck with this for principle," she said. "And part of the reason we did that is that this doesn't continue to happen to innocent residents.
"The administration allowed it to happen, and they didn't have to. They could have followed the law."