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Holly Neck and beyond

HOLLY NECK IS a throwback to bygone times, a sparsely populated, bucolic peninsula of jungle-like trees and weathered shoreline shacks just 30 minutes east of Baltimore's downtown.

Now Dr. Leonard P. Berger, the same landowner who kept this Middle River backwater in its pristine condition for decades, wants to cash in on his investment.

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Baltimore County authorities welcome his plan for 110 luxury homes in Holly Neck, to sell from $500,000 to more than $1 million, and proposed a special bill to fast-track the development.

But critics are aghast. They fear that an approval would lead to a flood of exception requests not only along the environmentally sensitive shoreline but in the north county as well. "This one opens up a door that clever attorneys are going to use," predicts Jack Dillon of the Valleys Planning Council, a north county conservation group.

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The Berger request, which will be voted by the County Council today, is not unreasonable. But the controversy underlines the need for the county to tighten and refine its zoning laws. Design and density controls ought to be added to certain rural conservation categories. And the law ought to spell out to developers what allowances they could expect if they agree to cluster houses, as Dr. Berger has done. Such clustering makes eminent sense in creating buffers because connected structures use less land than single houses would.

The development is not a done deal, even if the County Council approves the bill. Any citizen or organization can ask for reclassification of the land - including down-zoning - when the Baltimore County rezoning process begins in September. And because the land abuts the Chesapeake Bay, nothing can be built until Dr. Berger wins an approval from the state Critical Areas Commission.

Over the past three decades, Dr. Berger has submitted countless proposals for Holly Neck. After some truly atrocious ones were rejected, he agreed to sell a good chunk of his original holdings to the county, which has amassed 1,500 acres for conservation purposes. And just in the nick of time, because development pressures are intensifying. One reason is that Holly Neck, which relies on wells for drinking water and on septic systems and outhouses for relief, is expected to have water and sewer lines installed in another three years.

A far bigger change is also in the air. Long-delayed economic development is about to jolt Essex and Middle River from the slumber into which those blue-collar World War II communities fell in the 1970s. Their isolation is ending: White Marsh Boulevard is being extended to link the area to Interstate 95 and the Beltway; nearly 400 waterfront homes are under construction on sites that once housed war workers.

This revitalization is welcome and long overdue. But as developers start zeroing in on east county's shoreline, zoning tools must be sharpened. The debate ought to be about growth best suited for that environmentally sensitive area, so development proceeds as thoughtfully as possible.


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