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Outrage over infill in suburban areas

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Andrea Soukup has only to look out her window to see the scar in the pastoral landscape of the Cromwell Valley, a lush green fabric of rolling fields and forested, rocky hills just north of Baltimore's Beltway.

Across the Gunpowder Falls from her home, a portion of the ridge has been stripped of trees, the denuded slope girdled by a massive retaining wall. Construction crews toil atop the narrow crest, carving - blasting, in some cases, out of solid rock - a two-lane road and enough flat land on which to build 17 houses.

"They've pretty much devastated it up there," said Soukup. An artist, she has lived in the area with her husband for three years.

All around the Beltway, Baltimore suburbanites are watching in dismay as their treasured patches of green - a vacant lot or copse of trees - go under the bulldozer. Driven by the real estate boom, developers are scouring established neighborhoods for pocket-sized parcels of land skipped over in years past, often because the spots were too costly or difficult to build on. They are proposing - or, in some cases, reviving long-dormant plans - to build anywhere from a few to a few dozen houses.

Such "infill" development is supposed to happen under Smart Growth, Maryland's pioneering sprawl-fighting policy. To slow the loss of forest, farmland and scenic rural vistas, state and local officials have pledged to try to steer new construction toward built-up communities where roads, schools, sewer lines and other infrastructure already exist.

But projects such as the one in Cromwell Woods in Baltimore County are rousing neighbors' ire. They contend that some land escaped development in the past because it was on slopes too steep to build, or too near streams. To let construction go forward now, they contend, threatens to degrade already stressed suburban streams and undermine residents' quality of life.

"It's just amazing to me what gets approved," said Soukup.

To others as well.

"That development ... is an atrocious example of infill," said T. Brian McIntire, who represents the area on the Baltimore County Council. "How our department of environment approved it I'll never know."

Key exemption

"It met all the requirements," countered David A. C. Carroll, director of the county's Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management. Carroll acknowledged, though, that the project did secure one key exemption - from the state's forest conservation law, which would have limited tree removal or required reforestation of the ridge. The state law does not apply to projects approved before its 1991 passage, he said.

The Cromwell Woods development plan was originally approved by the county in the 1980s, said Arnold F. "Pat" Keller, the county's planning director. The property is just inside the county's growth boundary, where water and sewer service are available and zoning allows housing to be built.

Keller said that when the ridge-top parcel didn't get developed years ago, he and others assumed that it never would because of its rugged topography.

"In many respects it fell off the radar screen," Keller said. "Should it have been or could it have been developed? I think the answer is pretty evident, if you've driven out there. It probably shouldn't have. But it had the zoning."

Nor is Cromwell Valley the only place where development approved long ago is now cropping up.

Residents of a Lutherville neighborhood, for example, are fighting a developer's bid to build eight houses on a patch of woods left in a community originally approved by the county in the 1920s.

Smaller projects

Keller said planning records indicate 8,000 to 9,000 housing units remain unbuilt in Baltimore County that have been approved in years past.

Other suburbs of Baltimore say they also are seeing more infill projects, some of them remnants of land left over from prior development or extra building lots carved out where zoning allows.

"There's a lot of one-unit, two-unit plans coming in, and a lot of five-unit plans," said Jeff Bronow, research chief for Howard County's department of planning and zoning. He said he has tracked a two-thirds decline in the average size of housing projects there over the past 12 years.

"The less easy land to develop is starting to be developed now," Bronow said.

In the Cromwell Woods case, road access and the high cost of preparing the ridge top for housing kept it from being developed until now, said David Altfeld, co-owner of the development firm, Southern Land Co.

"At one point it wouldn't have been feasible economically, but now with the recent surge in real estate values, it's made more sense," Altfeld said.

Still, he said, "it's a special piece [of land]. Its location and the views from the top of the ridge make it a very unique property with unique lots."

He said his firm is negotiating with national home-building companies to put up "executive-size houses" on the 12 lots the firm owns. An additional five houses are to be built by others on redrawn lots in the old subdivision.

Infill development has acquired an extra edge in Baltimore County, where officials long ago agreed on preserving the rural character of the northern third of the county while compressing development into the two-thirds of the county closest to the Beltway and Baltimore City. Builders contend they're running out of open land for new housing.

"As the growth areas that were created in the 1970s and '80s in Baltimore County become built out, and ... job and household growth continues, those are the places [for builders] to go," said Tom Ballentine, government affairs director of the Maryland Association of Home Builders. "There are very few large parcels of land that ... are zoned for development. Most of what is remaining is small, less-than-3-acre sites nestled in existing sites."

Baltimore County officials say they have repeatedly throttled back on new development in recent years while encouraging redevelopment of older neighborhoods. More land has been down-zoned than upgraded, and new development now must meet stringent new laws and regulations.

"What we're finding is that there are more and more projects coming in where the land had been passed over in the past," said Carroll, the county environmental regulator.

Not everyone agrees that such infill construction is a sign of growth management working.

"I don't see how in the world they ever got approval to build up there," said Richard Klein, an environmental consultant contacted by the residents. "It's got to be the worst development site in Baltimore County," he said of the ridge-top project.

Several residents complain they didn't even know the ridge-top project was in the works until trees started coming down and blasting began.

"It rumbled our houses, and our glasses and dishes were clinking," said Elaina Thomas, whose backyard is separated from the development by a stream that flows into the Gunpowder. She said she worries about the potential for the steep slopes to erode, muddying the streams, and for the visual shock of seeing homes atop an otherwise forested ridge.

"It's an eyesore," Thomas said of the deforested slope.

Altfeld called the residents' complaints about lack of notice "an unfortunate situation." His firm advertised and held a public meeting about the project four years ago, as required under county rules. It also negotiated an agreement with residents of Ravenridge Road.

"Certainly there's a visual impact," acknowledged Altfeld, who is also head of the Baltimore County home builders chapter. But he said he was confident the project would not harm the Gunpowder or its tributaries, and he vowed that trees would be replanted along the ridge.

"We don't regulate aesthetics," said Carroll, Baltimore County's environmental chief.

Grandfathering

Still, county officials, troubled by the ability of long-dormant projects to skirt existing development regulations, have moved to curtail the practice of "grandfathering" them.

A measure passed in March by the Baltimore County Council gives property owners three years to begin building houses after development plans are approved - or else the project would be subject to review all over again under new, more stringent rules for giving community notice and input.

"An owner has an absolute right to develop his or her land, according to the laws that exist," said Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a co-sponsor of the measure. "But we want those laws to be the present laws, not the laws of decades ago."

timothy.wheeler@baltsun.com

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