Some call it "villagate," a dark conspiracy between a wealthy developer and Baltimore County officials.
Others say it's a perfect marriage of diligent, high-end residential development coupled with the mesmerizing charm of the Chesapeake Bay.
Whatever the view, the rural community on the picturesque Holly Neck peninsula could undergo a sea change - from bucolic waterfront, woods and patches of farmland to expensive homes and BMWs.
Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. is pushing a bill before the County Council that would allow a developer, Leonard P. Berger of Ocean City, to build 110 homes on the peninsula. A majority would be "villas" built in clusters of four or five.
The council plans to discuss the bill at a work session today and is scheduled to vote on it Aug. 4.
The proposed villas are "glorified rowhouses," said Barbara Byrnes, a member of the Holly Neck Conservation Association. She and others opposing the legislation said it would allow Berger to circumvent strict zoning laws while building a development on the fragile shores of the Chesapeake Bay and Middle River, destroying the area's rural character.
Byrnes alleges that the bill is crafted specifically for Berger and defies local zoning regulations blocking connected dwellings such as townhouses, or "villas." And, she says, it would give Berger the right to bypass height limits on the peninsula, going from the current 35 feet to 45 feet.
Her concerns highlight apprehensions held by many on the peninsula - that Berger is trying to circumvent local zoning regulations and is receiving special treatment from elected officials. Residents will have a chance to express their opposition as Berger's development moves through the planning and zoning process.
Berger - a former Baltimore physician who owns properties in Ocean City, including an oceanfront hotel, and a Porsche/ Mercedes Benz dealership in Atlantic City, N.J. - has been patient.
"I have submitted 10 plans to the county over the past year and a half," said Berger, "so I have been and remain willing to work with the community - some of whom happen to like my latest plan - the county, whoever it takes to shape a development that will be a boon to the eastern waterfront."
After selling hundreds of acres of pristine land on Holly Neck in the 1990s to the state and county for preservation, Berger still owns 155 acres on the peninsula, some along the bayfront and the rest just inland.
He owns the 54 "shore shacks" that would be torn down if his plan is adopted, many in ramshackle condition and serviced by aging septic tanks. For many of the people who rent those properties, their only source of water is a nearby public pump.
Currently, there are no water or sewer lines into Holly Neck, but lines will be extended to the tip of the peninsula by 2006, according to David Carroll, director of the county Department of Environment and Resource Management.
Special favors alleged
"This issue has stirred up more than I thought it would," said Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat. "The Berger land issue has been around for 30 years. We feel this is a good bill to move the area forward while addressing the concerns of the local residents."
Still, the perception of special treatment for Berger, and the actions of the county executive and council, worry those close to the peninsula and beyond.
"What kind of legal precedent is this setting?" asked Ron Belbot, a 30-year resident of Holly Neck. "Dr. Berger has every right to develop his land, but will every powerful developer now go to the county executive or County Council and have a law crafted for them? Will this law apply to other sections of the county?"
That is precisely what worries conservationists such as Richard W. McQuaid of Parkton, a north county area laced with working farms and rolling woodland.
"This bill will create havoc with the county zoning process, allowing powerful developers to supersede zoning laws because they have access to the county executive or a councilman," McQuaid said. "Most property owners don't have that access and must abide by the law."
McQuaid, president of the North County Coalition of 14 community groups, said he will join Holly Neck residents at the council work session in opposing the bill.
Smith spokesman Damian O'Doherty said the bill "encourages a development pattern that protects the bay and other natural resources while enhancing quality of life on the peninsula."
O'Doherty denied opponents' allegation that the bill was crafted specifically for Berger, saying it "was not designed for any one person."
Officials counter criticism of the plan by saying that without the legislation, Berger could build single-family homes on each acre he owns, creating a much larger development.
The Holly Neck peninsula is a paradise to those who live there. Surrounded by the bay, river and quiet coves, there is just a two-lane road connecting residents with the more-populated upper Back River Neck.
Some Holly Neck homeowners have rebuilt their homes on deep, narrow lots on the water. One handsome brick home on the riverfront is on the market for just under $1 million.
Under the development plan - with clusters of twin-garage villas starting at $500,000, individual homes at $750,000, approaching $1 million on the bayfront - the community would not have as many curbs, driveways and other intrusive features, officials and Berger said.
Some of the new homes would face the bay, with others in four scattered pockets at the end of the peninsula. In accordance with zoning laws, the waterfront homes would be 100 feet from the bay and three trees would be planted for each one cut down, Berger said.
"That's just wonderful, except those old majestic trees will be toppled and totally eliminate a critical buffer with the bay," said Byrnes of the Holly Neck association. "Another problem no one is talking about is, how long will those new trees take to grow?"
The long battle
Berger's battles with residents go back decades.
In the early 1970s, Berger wanted to build an ambitious complex on Holly Neck that would have included 1,100 homes, many of them townhouses, a hotel, convention center and a 500-slip marina.
That initiative was eventually scuttled after a series of protests by residents along the peninsula.
Jackie Nickel, president of the Back River Neck Peninsula Community Association, which abuts Holly Neck to the north, was one of the early opponents to Berger's old "Harborplace on the Bay" concept.
But she said residents should view the most recent plan as a "quality project, environmentally sound." She added, however, that "it's really a murky situation, with legal, environmental and politics all rolled into this one plan, this one piece of legislation."
Nickel said, "There remain a lot of answers we need, but there will be public hearings along the way if this project goes forward, and there could be some small changes if everyone can agree. We held him [Berger] off for 30 years but, hey, it's his land.
"We never wanted a hodgepodge of development on the peninsula, and this looks like it's the best we can get."