After some minor changes, the Baltimore County Council overwhelmingly approved a bill last night that will allow a wealthy developer to build more than 100 upscale homes on a rural peninsula overlooking the Chesapeake Bay.
The seven-member council cleared the way for the plan pushed by Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., allowing developer Leonard P. Berger of Ocean City to build 110 homes on the Holly Neck peninsula.
While granting Berger special exemptions from county zoning regulations, officials have assured both residents and officials that the development on Holly Neck will be sensitive to the bay, Middle River and two quiet coves off the peninsula, and acres of woodland.
But those assurances did little to assuage nagging concerns of area residents and those beyond the county's east side who believe the council's action last night sets a dangerous precedent and favors powerful developers.
In a public comment to the council, Richard W. McQuaid, a conservationist from Parkton, said the council "juggled regulations for special interests."
McQuaid, who represented 14 community groups from northern Baltimore County, said he fears the legislation passed last night will open doors for special treatment for other developers.
"In another day, you would have been tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail," McQuaid said to applause from onlookers.
Among the amendments approved by the council, a special height allowance of 45 feet was withdrawn. Other homeowners on Holly Neck are limited to 35 feet.
Still, the residents of Holly Neck drew small comfort from the change.
"You have done a great disservice to your constituents," said Ron Belbot, a longtime Holly Neck resident and an opposition leader to Berger's plan.
Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, whose 6th District includes Holly Neck, took exception to the tone of opponents' comments.
"I was disappointed nobody recognized that I amended the height exception," Bartenfelder said, adding, "The bill was pushed by the administration, not us.
Nonetheless, the council's action, Belbot said, "assures [financial] return for the developer." He vowed that the community group will continue to fight the development.
Another resident, Neil Schmidt, looked at the council members and asked, "Have you done your homework? ... Have you heard it will be a gated community, have a segregated swimming pool?"
No council member responded.
A majority of Berger's development -- once it clears several layers of county and state hearings and field tests -- would be brick "villas" built in clusters of four or five dwellings. Single-family homes Berger plans for the peninsula will approach a $1 million pricetag.
After selling hundreds of acres of pristine land on Holly Neck in the past to the state and county for preservation, Berger still owns 155 acres on the peninsula, some along the bay front and the rest just inland -- pockets of land he has targeted for his upscale homes.
Berger owns the 54 "shore shacks" that would be torn down if his plan eventually is adopted. Many are in ramshackle condition and serviced by aging septic tanks and one community water pump.
There are no water or sewer connections into Holly Neck, but lines will be extended to the tip of the peninsula by 2006, county officials said.
Several residents voiced concern about the ability of the new sewer system to handle a larger capacity of waste once the new homes are built. Also repeated were concerns of traffic congestion on a two-lane road leading into the peninsula.
Berger attended the council meeting, leaving with his two lawyers after the favorable vote.