- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2000

MIDDLE RIVER, Md. A bill approved by the Maryland Senate would let Baltimore County Executive C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger buy blue-collar businesses and low-income apartments in the Middle River-Essex area at below-market prices and resell them for upscale development.

Under the bill, Baltimore County could condemn not only "blighted" areas, but also areas "not subject to deteriorated or deteriorating conditions [and] in need of development or redevelopment, for the public benefit."

The measure, which has a good chance of passing the House next week, has pitted small businesses and homeowners seeking to maintain their middle-class lifestyle against county leaders and developers seeking to upgrade the area.

In addition, some critics of the bill warn that it would set a precedent allowing similar land acquisitions elsewhere in the state.

Some property owners argue the bill violates their constitutional rights because the public interest could be served by less severe measures a view with which state Delegate Diane DeCarlo, a Democrat who represents the area, agrees.

"The county could have used [tax incentives]. They didn't put other businesses out in the Essex area, they gave them low-interest loans," said Mrs. DeCarlo, who is a member of the House committee that will consider the measure next week.

Michael Davis, a top aide to Mr. Ruppersberger, said the county didn't ask many who live and work in the community to be involved in its revitalization because they don't fit the administration's vision for the area.

Mr. Ruppersberger wants restaurant and retail development along Middle River to attract travelers by boat and car and to create an affluent village center.

Baltimore County's lobbyist Pat Roddy says the county is just seeking the same powers as other jurisdictions, such as Prince George's County, to redevelop lagging communities.

Mr. Roddy said the legislation is of only local interest. Maryland's legislature traditionally defers to local legislators on such issues.

But some lawmakers who once supported the bill now are rethinking the matter.

"To be honest, when I first saw this I thought it was a good idea," said Delegate James F. Ports Jr., a Republican who represents a section of Baltimore County.

After touring the Middle River area, talking to residents and taking a closer look at the bill, Mr. Ports said the measure is a "money grab" that will be a sweetheart deal for somebody.

Mr. Ports said the bill's tactic of listing properties that are subject to condemnation is a smokescreen designed to conceal the broad powers it would give to county officials.

Allowing the county to condemn areas that are not deteriorating would give county leaders wide latitude over the use of private property in their jurisdictions by claiming "public benefit," critics of the bill said.

Critics "can say they hate it, but they can't say it's precedent setting," Sen. Michael Collins, Baltimore County Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said in reference to Prince George's County.

However, although Prince George's has authority to take over condemned properties in the public interest, it has condemned only blighted and abandoned properties.

About 40 Middle River businesses, two owner-occupied homes and more than 900 rental units, mostly apartments, could be condemned under the bill, county officials said.

Hundreds of residents and business owners are worried that their opposition, which was mustered after word circulated about the bill, will be too little too late.

"I have no quarrel that a coat of paint and a little hard work would spruce this place up," said Brad Wallace, 55, whose parents' blue cinderblock rambler sits cater-cornered to his cramped engine repair shop on Eastern Avenue. "But we're not being given an opportunity, although we serviced this community at least kept it intact."

"There's no doubt that for the individuals involved, it's a difficult situation and traumatic," Mr. Davis said. "But it's the job of the county executive to look out for the whole county."

With the prospect of condemnation looming, property owners say potential buyers will be impossible to find and they have to take whatever the county decides is the fair market value.

Georgiane Lynch told legislators at a hearing last week her mother received one call from the county and no indication of how important it was to respond before her parents' waterfront property was put on the condemnation list.

If the bill goes forward, residents may turn to the courts or try to petition the move to referendum to stop it.

"The court is what protects you in these situations," said Robert Zarnoch of the Maryland Attorney General's Office. "The idea of what's public use or public interest has evolved more recently taken a broader view of what's in the public interest. It's easier to justify that it's constitutional than that it's good public policy. But that's what legislators who are reviewing it have to think about."

One large property owner in the community won't have to worry.

The husband of Delegate Nancy Hubers, Baltimore County Democrat, owns about 60 acres, including roughly 3,000 feet of waterfront in the middle of the proposed redevelopment area. It is exempt from condemnation because the Huberses "have expressed interest in developing it," Mr. Davis said.

"How come they are protecting a delegate? That's what everyone wants to know," Mrs. DeCarlo said.

Mrs. Hubers, whose husband is a real estate broker, has recused herself from voting on the bill. She said the property has not been listed, but added that "everybody knows it has been for sale."

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