Appeals board rejects variances that would allow Old Trails development


When the County Council, sitting as the Zoning Board of Appeals last week, rejected variances granted to allow 56 homes to be built on a scenic point in Joppatowne, it set the stage for a court battle over the 31-acre waterfront parcel.

And the property owner, former County Executive Habern W. Freeman Jr., says that suits him just fine.

"I wasn't upset at all," he said of the board's decision. "The whole purpose of this exercise has been to get to court."

Freeman's property, called Old Trails, has been the center of a controversy over development rights almost since Freeman and his investment partners bought the property 1979.

In the past two years, William Casey, the zoning hearing examiner, conducted 10 hearings on the case before issuing his opinion in June granting Old Trails five variances to build on the wooded property, which is replete with wetlands, steep slopes, animal habitats and rare plants and sits at the end of Foster Knoll Drive.

Neighbors, including state Del. Richard K. Impallaria, a Republican who represents Baltimore and southern Harford counties, have fought the proposed homes, saying the land is too fragile for that many homes.

After Casey granted the variances - and cast a stern eye on what he noted was the "very real effort of Harford County to intensely develop this property" by never downzoning the parcel's high residential and business classifications - neighbors, the county and the state appealed his decision to the county's Zoning Board of Appeals.

"I feel good - the fight is still not over," said Tammy Baczynskyj, after the board announced its decision Tuesday. Baczynskyj lives at the end of Foster Knoll Drive and would have a view of eight or nine homes off her back deck if the homes were built.

County Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, a Democrat who represents Joppatowne, said while the council reversed the variances in its 5-2 vote, it didn't rule out any building on the property, which he said could still have 20 or so homes on it.

The council's decision, however, does not note any such allotment.

"The problem with Old Trails is you cannot build one single house on that property without granting variances," Guthrie said. "I think it's a fair settlement."

Freeman begs to differ. He said the decision - and many before this one - amounts to an unfair government seizure of his property.

"It's a clear-cut issue of taking," he said. "It's just been very, very unfair - the whole purpose has been to prevent any use of the property."

He points out that when he and his partners bought the property for $95,500 in 1979, the land was zoned for high-intensity residential and business development. It was included in the original Joppatowne Master Plan in 1961 and designated for 50 single-family homes, 40 townhouses and a marina.

But no plats were ever recorded, a fact which prevents Freeman's use of the land from being grandfathered from Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Program regulations. Instead, he said, he has been progressively more disenfranchised by them.

The board's decision exhausts the hearings and appeals process by Freeman and his neighbors. Freeman's lawyer, Robert Lynch of Stark and Keenan, said he plans to file a suit within the next month in Circuit Court seeking to uphold the zoning hearing examiner's variances. If that suit is unsuccessful, Lynch said, the next step would be to argue the unlawful taking issue.

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