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Mobtown Beat

Stopping the Dump

Debate Over Expanding Gwynns Falls Landfill Heats Up

By Molly Rath | Posted 7/4/2001

Just past a NO TRESPASSING sign barring entrance to the driveway at 2900-02 W. Baltimore St. lie the discarded belongings of prison inmate Antone Holmes: a large plastic bag of underwear, a damp tattered Bible, and stacks of letters addressed to Holmes at a North Carolina correctional facility and the Baltimore City jail. Beyond that begins a trail of abandoned family photos, ending about 100 yards downhill where the driveway dumps into a rocky meadow on the bank of the Gwynns Falls River. There are bottles, food wrappers, bits of plastic this and glass that--pretty much all manner of trash.

But the refuse strewn across this stretch of asphalt pales next to the trash buried in the clearing below, community activists say, and the trash that could rise nearly 200 feet in the air over the next 10 years.

It's a complaint that has long reverberated through this southwestern corner of the city, as residents have fought the landfill at the site and, more recently, the landfill's expansion (Mobtown Beat, May 2, html). Lately the opposition has grown larger, louder, and more organized. One elected official who wants to see the expansion materialize has become more frustrated. And the operator of the Gwynns Falls landfill has made it clear that it won't back down from its expansion quest, laying the groundwork for a protracted dispute that could last months, even years.

City Council member Melvin Stukes (D-6th District) says the landfill is a "visionary" way to recycle land and calls its critics shortsighted. The conflict recalls a highly politicized land-use feud in 1999, when Stukes was among a council majority that approved a rubble-crusher in Northeast Baltimore despite neighborhood opposition. And the debate over the Gwynns Falls landfill is shaping up to be similarly charged.

One opponent of the landfill expansion questions the motivation behind Stukes' support of the project. "Councilman Stukes came to a meeting and let it be known these folks are doing us a favor, and I think it's on account of green. I can't prove it. But we are the ones who put him in office, [and] he's not doing anything for us," says Otis Lee, chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee to Stop the Dump at Gwynns Falls.

"I just have a problem with somebody that can't see beyond tomorrow or today," Stukes counters. "Jobs are needed over there so bad. And nature is not serving anybody--it's just barren open land with overgrowth and illegal dumping taking place.

"And if Lee says something about me and money again," he adds, "I'm going to sue him."

The subject of dispute is a leafy, approximately 32-acre parcel in an abandoned quarry along the western rim of the Gwynns Falls between West Baltimore Street and Edmondson Avenue. Potts and Callahan, one of Baltimore's biggest demolition contractors, bought the site in 1997, and for three years it dumped construction debris on a 4.5-acre piece of the parcel--until March 2000, when, on the heels of Martin O'Malley's swearing-in as mayor, city officials refused to renew the contractor's landfill permit. The city also barred the contractor from expanding its landfill to the remaining 27.5 acres, a project that, through dumping of construction debris and subsequent grading, would fill in the former quarry site--and the Gwynns Falls' western bank--making it level with the Potts and Callahan parcel's highest point.

Potts and Callahan and the city have been feuding ever since. The contractor sued Baltimore in city Circuit Court in April 2000; the case was dismissed in July and is pending appeal.

Meanwhile, community groups have waged their own battle, and their efforts have intensified recently. In early May, the Ad Hoc Committee to Stop the Dump at Gwynns Falls retained a new lawyer and set about building a new legal strategy and bolstering its citizen arsenal. (The committee so far counts seven neighborhood groups and the Friends of the Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park among its ranks.)

Stop the Dump committee members worry about the traffic a daily influx of 150 trucks would generate with an expanded landfill--dozens of elderly homeowners, two schools, and a Police Athletic League center straddle the 32-acre site. The activists and environmentalists also worry about the increasingly polluted Gwynns Falls. These are the same complaints Potts and Callahan has fielded since 1997, only now they're laced with a distrust that dims any prospect of a middle-ground accord.

While courts so far have ruled in their favor, Stop the Dump committee members fear politics could trump any legal decision, and Stukes' persistent support of the project has them worried. At a community meeting they held June 14 to publicize the issue, Stukes urged attendees not to sign an anti-dump petition. Meanwhile, Susan Williams, a manager with the City Planning Department, says city legislation to allow the expansion has been on the table. "We've talked to Melvin Stukes about a number of issues regarding the proposed Baltimore Street area . . . and one of the options discussed was a planned-unit development," Williams says.

Stukes says he'd introduce legislation in the City Council if there's a development plan "that makes sense."

"I hate to see 27 acres of land . . . doing nobody any good. That place was a business for 100 years, it could continue to be a productive place. I'm visionary," he says. "The situation with the [rubble-crusher] was very similar to this one. What I saw there was an African-American businessman who was trying to get it going and people trying to stop him."

Rebutting any notion that his positions on prickly land-use projects are a quid pro quo for political support, Stukes, who has a long record of financial support among city contractors and engineers, says his relationship with rubble-crusher operator Randy Phipps predates the 1999 dispute; they're friends who have celebrated their birthdays together for three years. Campaign-finance records, meanwhile, show that Phipps gave Stukes $1,000 in July 1999 and another $2,500 in March 2000. Stukes most recently received a contribution, $400, from Potts and Callahan in March 1998, records show.

Potts and Callahan Chief Executive Officer Charles Holub also decries any notion of political payback. "The community's off-base," he says. "I support a lot of people, and Melvin Stukes is one of them. If he's for the project, he's for the project for a reason, because it's the right thing to do."

Members of the Stop the Dump committee view Stukes' relationships with supporters ominously. "He has been at some of our meetings . . . [and] he has been the only one other than Mr. Holub to say the landfill is a good idea. You can speculate why," Kevin Zucker, second vice president of the Friends of Gwynns Falls, says.

As a result, the committee is angling to get the landfill dispute out of the courts and before the city Board of Municipal Zoning and Appeals--the likely outcome should Potts and Callahan lose the appeal of its legal case. Toward that end, says Kristine Dunkerton, the Stop the Dump committee's lawyer, her client plans to petition the Court of Special Appeals to weigh its opposition as part of any decision rendered on the case this fall. If Potts and Callahan prevails, Dunkerton says, the committee will be ready to take the issue back to Circuit Court. And Lee, the committee's chairperson, says he's collecting signatures for a "Stop the Dump" petition just in case.

"What I'm trying to do is get my people ready and have as much ammunition on hand as we can," Lee says, tallying 400 to 500 signatures so far. "We don't know what's going to happen, so we're trying to fortify ourselves. So far, no one has come forth and said, 'We're not going to do anything, it's all over.' And until we get that in writing, we're not going away."

Since Potts and Callahan is equally resolute in its attempt to expand the landfill, it looks like Lee and his committee will be hunkering down for the long haul. "We're gonna do whatever it takes to secure a permit to get the area filled," Holub says.

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