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Mobtown Beat

Waste Land?

Planning Panel Says Hillsdale Heights Homes Pose No Sewer Threat

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 4/4/2001

The "sewer war" that's been causing such a stink in West Baltimore moved one step closer to closure March 29, when the city Planning Commission unanimously approved the Hillsdale Heights Neighborhood Association Corp.'s final development plans for a 24-house subdivision at the southern end of Hillsdale Road.

Vehemently opposing development of this sloping, wooded parcel is a contingent of Dickeyville residents who inhabit the historic neighborhood across the Gwynns Falls from the site. They contend that the leaks and backups that plague the area's aged sewer and storm-water system would be exacerbated by new development.

The commission deferred action on the Hillsdale proposal last September, pending a Department of Public Works (DPW) examination of the wastewater infrastructure (The Nose, Sept. 27, 2000). The DPW staff report presented to the Planning Commission concluded that there is sufficient capacity in the existing sewer lines to handle the additional houses and recommended that the commission approve the development.

G. Macy Nelson, an attorney representing Dickeyville residents, told the commission there are at last three major leaks in the area's principal sewer and storm-water line and that raw sewage routinely bubbles up in his clients' yards during heavy rains. "This is a very real, very severe problem adversely effecting my clients' lives," Nelson said.

However, Gary Wyatt, DPW's chief utility engineer, testified that "structurally the sewer is in pretty good shape," and that a just-completed video examination of the area's main sewer line found no leaks. He added that Public Works plans to "rehabilitate" some of Dickeyville's sewer pipes to correct flow problems unrelated to the Hillsdale development.

Sewage wasn't the only source of Dickeyville's dissent. Nelson also questioned whether the Hillsdale Heights group owns the entire 11.3-acre tract and maintained that the project conflicts with the city's master plan. A "fatal flaw" in the Hillsdale proposal, he said, was the city's misplacement of a 1965 letter outlining development conditions at that time, when the Planning Commission first approved subdividing the parcel.

But Regina Clay, the commission's chairperson, refused to entertain objections unrelated to sewer and wastewater issues, telling Nelson that all other aspects of the plan were already approved--a "done deal." Satisfied with DPW's assessment of the sewer situation, the commission OKed the plan.

Nelson, claiming that "there are flaws in the whole process," says his clients plan to appeal the commission's decision. Ten-year Dickeyville resident Stephanie Miller said she's opposed to development of any kind taking place on the Hillsdale sight, preferring to see the "unique urban forest" acquired by a land-preservation group. "We're a determined neighborhood," she said. "We will prevail."

Vera Hall, president of the Hillsdale Heights corporation and a former City Council member, said the neighborhood-based developer hopes to begin work on the site this month. She dismissed intimations by opponents of the project that her political connections smoothed the path for the housing development, describing the corporation (whose officers also include a former city deputy planning director) as "just average people."

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