Harford land dispute unfolds


The land at the end of Foster Knoll Drive in Joppatowne, edged with wetlands and carved with ravines, sits higher than the properties around it, offering a panoramic view of Mariner Point Park, just across a neighboring creek, and the Bird and Gunpowder rivers.

But the 31-acre tract, rich with wildlife and rare plants, is also at the center of a battle over development rights.

Habern W. Freeman Jr., the former county executive who helped to create Mariner Point Park in the 1980s, is one of the owners of the property. Freeman and the investment group he heads, Old Trails Partnership, will go before the Harford County zoning officer tonight seeking a variance that would allow them to build 56 homes there.

The county, the state and neighbors say that's too many. They argue that the property, on which a series of development restrictions has been imposed, is environmentally sensitive and that building should be limited.

County and state agencies are gathering appraisals for the property in hopes of buying it through one of the state's land preservation programs.

"The state is working with Harford County on the review of this property for conservation purposes," said Chip Price, director of Program Open Space, which provides funding for parks and conservation areas.

Freeman said the group would consider such a deal. "It would be a beautiful addition to Mariner Park," he said, quickly adding that he doesn't expect to receive a realistic offer.

"They're going to say it's worthless - they've made it worthless. And they're going to offer very little for it," he said.

Freeman and the seven other partners in Old Trails bought the property, which is zoned for high-intensity residential and business development, for $95,500 in 1979. According to county records, it is assessed at $123,880.

Despite the zoning designation, Freeman said, he has been blocked from developing the land by regulations put in place by the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission, which has recommended that the variance request be denied. The regulations require such things as expanded buffer zones to protect wetlands, steep slopes, animal habitats and rare plants.

George Maurer, senior planner for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Maryland office, said that "to find all of that on one property is somewhat unusual and suggests to me that this is a property of high environmental value."

Those features drew Freeman and his fellow investors to the land in the first place. "We saw a beautiful piece of property - three or four of us wanted to live on it - and we bought it," he said.

But now, he said, the restrictions have left the land undevelopable. "You can't just have a piece of property you can't do anything with."

Some in the community say they fear that Freeman's political ties - he's a former county councilman, council president, county executive and state senator - give him and his partners an "in" on the project.

Freeman says the opposite is true.

"We know of no one who's been treated the way we have," he said, adding that if he had not been in politics, the homes would probably have been built by now. "The Critical Areas Commission dealt with that property with malice and denial of what they really wanted, which was no development at all."

Ren Serey, executive director of the commission, said the group has not taken a position on whether the land should be developed. The group objects to the 56 homes and to the fact that the slopes would have to be graded for houses to be built. "I think that's excessive for this site," Serey said.

Anthony S. McClune, chief of the land-use management division for the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, agreed. The department also has recommended the variance request be denied. "We're not saying, 'You can't touch this site.' There's only certain areas that would be appropriate.

"The property is very environmentally sensitive. It's a site that should be preserved."

Neighbors of the Old Trails property said they agree.

"To destroy this is criminal," said Tammy Baczynskyj, who lives on Foster Knoll Drive, where the road ends and sweeping woods begin. She and her husband, Richard, moved there nine years ago from Baltimore, looking for space and quiet. They have one neighbor, but if the development is approved, the view from their deck would include eight or nine houses.

"It's made me sick," she said of the proposed development. "I call this my Shangri-La. I know I'm spoiled. We don't have a lot of neighbors. But that's why we bought here."

She says she was told nine years ago by her real estate agent and Freeman that Old Trails Partnership would not be able to build on the property because of the wetlands.

So when she and her neighbors received a notice about the variance request, Baczynskyj and her husband drafted a "community alert," outlining the development plan. They have put more than 1,000 copies in Joppatowne stores and the public library.

She said the county sent notices to only a few homes on Foster Knoll Drive, something "we thought was sneaky. Only those backing up [to the property] were notified, when really it affects the whole community.

"We're just going to see what happens [tonight]," she said, "and form our plan of attack."

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