- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2000

ANNAPOLIS, Md. Thousands of residents and dozens of business owners in the Middle River-Essex area of Baltimore County lost an important round Thursday in their battle against a proposal that would allow the county government to force them out of their homes and shops.

Some sobbed as they left the hearing room where the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee discussed granting Baltimore County the authority to condemn property residents don't want to leave so local officials can make waterfront parcels available for upscale development.

By a 13-8 vote the committee sent the bill, already approved by the Senate, to the House floor, where it is expected to go to a vote next week.

"Whether this happens here or not, it's going to referendum," said Delegate Diane DeCarlo, Baltimore County Democrat, who led the fight against legislation sponsored by fellow county Democrat Sen. Michael Collins on behalf of Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Democrat.

The Ruppersberger administration says the revitalization project is needed to improve the county's tax base and make best use of valuable waterfront property.

Opponents, who have been carrying signs outside the State House all week, said they will begin gathering the approximately 10,000 signatures needed to put the legislation on the November ballot for voters to approve or overturn.

"There's a lot of water to go under this bridge," said William Pitcher, a lobbyist for the opponents who noted that the county council and other officials would have to sign off on the plan.

Others said the county will go beyond taking addresses named in the bill and seek to extend its reach to neighboring ones. The bill opens a seven-year window during which the county could condemn the property.

"The money is already in the budget it's apparent what they are trying to do," said Mark Webster, who lives outside the area but works at a business near some that could be taken.

Spokesman Michael Davis said the Ruppersberger administration did not try to work with the community to revitalize the area because the people there did not fit their vision for the area.

Delegate Theodore Sophocleus, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who voted against the bill, told fellow committee members that comment continues to trouble him.

"I hope that particular attitude is adjusted," Mr. Sophocleus said. "That's what we haven't nailed down. Keep that paramount in your mind. I'd like to keep in close contact with the people of Baltimore County to see people are protected."

Residents will get fair market value for their homes and businesses, moving expenses and an approximately $5,000 stipend to compensate for the hardship of being forced to move, said Baltimore County lobbyist Pat Roddy.

But Delegate Virginia Clagett said the area "is not a slum" and that she rode home from a visit to Middle River-Essex Wednesday with more questions than she had before her trip.

Nonetheless, Mrs. Claggett, Anne Arundel Democrat, was among 13 delegates who voted for the bill under the principle of "local courtesy" a General Assembly practice of supporting local legislators' majority position on local matters.

Opponents argued that the bill had statewide implications both because of principles at stake and because as much as $30 million in state funds may be requested to relocate people and attract an upscale developer.

"We are stretching the purpose of 'public good' and [taking property] for an entrepreneur's use," Delegate B. Daniel Riley, Harford County Democrat said. "We are taking a basic right guaranteed to us under the Fifth Amendment."

Delegate Louise Snodgrass, Frederick County Republican and former burgess of Middletown, said she was offended that people of the community were never given "due process."

"In my town they would have tarred and feathered me if I'd done that," Mrs. Snodgrass said.

She and other western Maryland delegates on the committee were angered that Mr. Collins sent word that he and others might teach them a lesson in local courtesy by opposing plans to create a state park at South Mountain, site of a pivotal Civil War battle outside Burkittsville.

"We may or may not enjoy the fruits of our efforts" but this is about doing the right thing, said Delegate David Brinkley, Frederick County Republican.

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