Nothing threatens life, liberty, and property like an ambitious politician. Residents in the Essex-Middle River area of Baltimore County, Maryland learned this lesson from County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, whose gubernatorial ambitions are amplified by a simple case of Inner Harbor envy.
Ruppersberger envisions a waterfront development of upscale shops and restaurants on the Middle River, much like the City of Baltimore's popular Inner Harbor. But the land he wants to build it on is owned and occupied by people who may not want to sell. So he went to the Maryland legislature last January and asked his fellow politicians for permission to take the property and hand it over to private developers. He couldn't take the property under current eminent domain law because it requires that the land be declared blighted and be put to a legitimate public use, such as a road, prison, county building, or insane asylum. The result was SB 509, which took effect last summer. It lists 39 parcels of land for the government to take.
"It's like taking a tick off a dog's butt with a shotgun," Brad Wallace, a lifelong county resident tells me at a noontime rally against the law in Towson, the county seat. "You accomplish the task, but you kill the dog."
Wallace first learned of Ruppersberger's plan to take his family's high-performance engine business and his parent's house from a form letter on February 11, 2000, a full week after the legislation was introduced. He doesn't deny the area could use some help, but he doesn't consider it blighted. His parents are still content in the house they built 50 years ago and his business, which is in its third generation now that his son is working with him, is doing well. Deadpans Wallace, who's blowing up campaign balloons from a helium tank in preparation for the rally, "This sort of dims my son's future a bit."
If Ruppersberger was aiming at a tick, he stirred up a hornets' nest.
Community members organized quickly, but six trips to Annapolis weren't enough to stop the bill from passing. Rick Impallaria, who purchased a body shop on two acres of riverfront property in September 1999, says that delegates told him it was an issue of local courtesy, meaning delegates have an informal agreement not to meddle in the affairs of local officials. The delegates logic is problematic, to say the least, since by going to Annapolis to get permission, Ruppersberger bypassed local debate on the issue.
Impallaria learned of the Ruppersberger's plan from his neighbors and joined them in an early trip to Annapolis, where they asked the legislature to let them keep their property. "It really upset me that these two older gentlemen, neighbors of mine, were groveling before the government to please be fair to them when they take their homes," recalls Impallaria. "I was just so enraged by this. This ain't what government's about. I respect my neighbors and I'm not going to let them grovel."
Instead of groveling, residents turned to direct democracy, and gathered 44,000 signatures to put the issue before the voters November 7, 2000 in the form of Question 3. If Baltimore County voters approve it, the plans can move forward. If they say no, the law is history. (Update: see results)
Thirty-one year old Mark Webster is working to defeat the law, which he first learned about when an elderly patron of the liquor store he manages showed him a letter from the county informing her of its plans to take her home. He looked into the issue and didn't like what he saw.
"This particular bill actually says it's to be 'liberally' construed," says the Baltimore county homeowner who's worried that his house could be taken at some point. "That one word [liberal] scares the hell out of me." His white '86 Camaro sports three "No on Question 3" bumper stickers, along side one for the NRA. He smokes Marlboro after Marlboro and skillfully works the press at the rally.
Supporters of the law have started working as well. Organized labor, developers, and construction companies may not agree on much. But they've found common cause in getting the government to take grandma's house and hand it over to them. The Baltimore Sun reports that Citizens for Neighborhood Renewal, a coalition of construction companies, real estate interests, unions, and residents, has raised $30,000 in the last two weeks to support the initiative. (The anti forces have raised just over $20,000, according to The Sun, mostly from raffles.) In an outrageous act, the County Department of Aging sent 18,000 letters to senior citizens recommending that they vote for the initiative.
Jingantree Pasram is one senior citizen who will be upset if one of those letters financed with her taxes lands in her mailbox. Pasram came to the area 20 years ago from Guyana, where the socialist government wasn't to her family's liking. She built her dream home here less than a decade ago. It's the locus of life for her, her 76-year-old husband, seven of her eight children and 12 grandchildren.
"I worked at McDonald's and took down the forest with a machete for 10 years because I couldn't afford a bulldozer," says Pasram, who shows me a picture of her house and grandchildren, explaining proudly the academic accomplishments of each of them. "I built myself a big mansion, 40 foot long and 30 foot wide with six bedrooms, five toilets. I never ask this government for one penny, one thing. I pay my taxes promptly. I clean my place spotless. I don't think someone should come and take that away."
Come Tuesday, she better hope that 50 percent—plus 1 more—of Baltimore county voters agree.