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Bayfront proposal roils quiet community

Along Holly Neck peninsula's quiet shores, Leonard P. Berger has become known as a wealthy interloper, a deal-maker with his own private jet, Porsche convertible and a small real estate empire.

Berger will, people complain, forever alter their waterfront Shangri-La, eventually building $1 million homes and shattering a peaceful reverie some in the eastern Baltimore County community have enjoyed for decades.

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"Berger's played the game, he's a big-time developer," said Neil Schmidt, a retired Baltimore firefighter who has resided on Holly Neck for 30 years. "Now he's going to cause a major disruption here, no doubt about it."

On Aug. 4, the County Council passed legislation that will allow Berger to build 110 upscale homes on the bucolic land that sits on the Chesapeake Bay and Middle River. Most of the homes will be connected "villa" clusters and built on the bayfront or where woodland and small farm patches now stand.

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But opponents in the community warn of inadequate infrastructure such as roads and sewer system. And, they say, the rural character of Holly Neck would be drastically changed by the project.

The bill had the blessing of County Executive James T. Smith Jr. Holly Neck residents believe officials juggled zoning laws in Berger's favor because of his wealth and political connections.

Berger, 68, denies all this. "This was an administration bill, not mine," he said. "I have worked with people in Holly Neck and will continue to do [so]. I am a patient man."

Since the 1970s, Berger said, he has owned more than 600 acres on Holly Neck. Most of that land was sold to the county and state for preservation; the remaining 157 acres will be the sites for his development.

"People will see some very nice housing, something that will stabilize the area," Berger said, referring to the revitalization of the county's east side, where two other housing developments are sprouting near Middle River's headwaters.

"We can work together instead of against one another," Berger said. "Some people there have walked up to me and told me they actually like what I will bring to their area."

'This is the price'

Jack Dillon, a retired county planner and executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, said he is not sure Berger can even be described as a developer, in the purest sense.

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"I only have known Berger as a landowner," said Dillon. "The water is magic, and he knows it. Erasing the stigma the east side once had is going to require a price to be paid by everyone. And this is the price."

Berger's holdings in Ocean City are extensive. He owns the Clarion Resort Fontainebleau Hotel, Ocean Club and Gateway Hotel on the Atlantic.

He also owns 69 condominiums there and a two-story beachfront condo where he lives and parks his silver Porsche Carrara and luxury Mercedes-Benz sedan. Berger also owns two high-end auto dealerships in New Jersey.

To the surprise of most, Berger wasn't always a wealthy man whose friends think he is the target of class envy.

He grew up in a Baltimore rowhouse. His father was raised in a Newark, N.J., orphanage, his grandfather owned a bar in New York's Bowery.

Berger remembers that his father worked long hours in the "coin service" business, on which he declined to elaborate. That work ethic was carried on during Berger's high school and college summer breaks - he went door to door hawking Bibles and Fuller brushes.

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"My father taught me a lot of good work habits," Berger said. "Actually, I did a lot of that work in the old World War II apartment complexes in Essex that got torn down."

In the accelerated "A" course at City College, where he graduated in 1953, he forged friendships that have endured. Across the classroom aisle, Berger remembered, was Edward Creamer, and in some of his classes was another student who impressed him, Morton Rapoport.

Creamer, who grew up in Highlandtown, went on to earn scholarships at the Johns Hopkins University and Yale Law School and eventually became the managing partner at Weinberg and Green, one of Baltimore's largest law firms before it merged several years ago.

"Lenny became a physician, and not many doctors I have seen had much business sense; they had difficulty dealing with ordinary people," said Creamer. "But Lenny always had entrepreneurial instincts, an eye for deals, he picks things up so quickly."

Hands-on person

No long vacations for Berger, said Creamer. "He loves what he does. It's not work, and he likes being a hands-on person."

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Rapoport, who retires next month as the University of Maryland Medical System's chief executive officer, said he got to know Berger well at City College and then as Berger's roommate at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania and later at the University of Maryland Medical School.

"Len was a hard worker," said Rapoport. "He was always attentive to detail. Some people view him as a tough person, but he is truly a kind man. That's what got him into practicing medicine."

Berger practiced family medicine in Parkville from 1962 to 1983. During that time, he served as chairman of the Baltimore County Board of Health. In that role he was instrumental in coaxing political leaders to build the Eastern Health Clinic near Franklin Square Hospital Center and helped start a course for paramedics at what was then Essex Community College. He also served a stint in the Army Reserve medical corps.

"But the insurance companies and the federal government by then were taking over medicine," Berger said. "By the time I stopped my medical practice, I had reached into new arenas."

He owned Caltec Cablevision and in 1984 merged the venture with a subsidiary of Comcast Corp. The company grew, with more than 100,000 subscribers, and Berger sold his interests for $7 million. He also owned, and sold, a string of six nursing homes in Maryland and Ohio.

Berger donates to some of his favorite organizations, such as Grant-A-Wish and Israel Bonds, and has established a $250,000 scholarship program at Franklin & Marshall in memory of his father, who had little schooling.

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"I came up from the middle class, I had opportunities and took them. ... I like this country," Berger said.

As for his development on Holly Neck, Berger said that he soon will meet with residents. "Some of the rumors are true, like we would discuss having a gated community, a swimming pool."

Berger knows that not everyone will be happy with his bayfront vision. "But people should know that I was there, that I owned that land way before many of the people moved into Holly Neck.

"This whole conflict could be based on the premise that residents think, 'I got mine and don't want you to have yours,' " he said.

'First-class community'

In the end, Berger said he hopes to convince people that his Holly Neck venture is an honorable one.

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"This is going to be a first-class community, on my land, with my name attached to it," he said.

And with a smile, Berger added that potential buyers are calling him and saying how nice a mansion overlooking the bay could be.


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