Baltimore County Appeals Board upholds thumbs-down on Bluestem Village

“Woefully inadequate” public sewers – halting a development project near Lake Roland – are reaffirmed as a growing public health problem

The plan to turn six acres adjacent to Lake Roland into a large-scale apartment and retail complex has been dealt another blow.

The Baltimore County Board of Appeals announced, during recent oral deliberations, that it will uphold an administrative judge’s decision to disapprove the Bluestem Village project in Bare Hills.

The board said it will issue a written decision affirming the findings of Administrative Law Judge John E. Beverungen, who earlier ruled that the project could not proceed because it planned to tap into a county sewer line that is already “woefully inadequate.”

The board’s decision not only serves as a major setback to Leonard Weinberg, whose Vanguard group has been trying to break ground for the retail and apartment complex, but it also poses a delicate balancing act for County Executive Johnny Olszewski.

Swept into office last year under the promise of installing an environmentally sensitive and transparent administration, Olszewski is under pressure to crack down on development where sewer lines are deficient.

A coalition of 19 community and environmental groups last month called on him to impose a moratorium on new building permits unless and until the county’s Basic Services Maps (BSMs) are corrected.

At the same time, Olszewski is under pressure to keep development flowing, especially in Towson where the $350 million Towson Row hotel-apartment-retail complex is underway.

Sewage in the Park

The focus of Beverungen’s concern – now reaffirmed by the Board of Appeals – is a 65-year-old pipe that receives sewage from the northern county, then carries it under Lake Roland to a pipeline owned by Baltimore City along the Jones Falls.

Three sewer mains, with a combined total of 96 inches of pipe diameter, are fed into the 42-inch interceptor pipe that goes under Lake Roland.

During extreme storm events, most sections of the interceptor pipe are above 100% capacity and at some points can reach up to 589% overcapacity, according to a report by county consultant RK&K.

“The county is in a tough bind because their own review boards are saying they got to spend money to fix something that’s become a public health issue.”  – Attorney Michael McCann.

Weeks before Beverungen issued his ruling, the county admitted that a major “blow” of untreated sewage had erupted from a manhole below Lake Roland Dam.

The discharge was discovered by a member of the Green Towson Alliance and was reported by The Brew, replete with photos of fecal-contaminated debris hanging from trees and bushes many feet from the damaged manhole.

The county is under a 2005 consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency to end all SSOs (sanitary sewer overflows) by adding “relief points” to its underground sewer network.

Services Maps Defended

The Olszewski administration defended the accuracy of the Basic Services Maps and discounted the need for a “relief sewer” under Lake Roland in a December 2 letter to Michael McCann, an attorney for the citizens coalition.

“The County uses the 10-year, 6-hour storm alternative to evaluate impact on the sewer system,” wrote deputy administrative officer Andrew Vetter. “The 10-year, 6-hour model did not demonstrate deficient capacity in the interceptor under Lake Roland, and, therefore, DPW has not initiated a project for a relief or replacement interceptor at that location.”

Saying “DPW believes that there are no errors in the BSM,” Vetter nevertheless disclosed that “an independent third party” will be hired by the county to complete “a comprehensive study” of the upper Jones Falls sewershed.

“The analysis will include structural condition of sewer pipes, operations and maintenance, future growth, and sanitary sewer system capacity. This report will be shared when it is available,” Vetter promised.

“Felt Bad” for the Developer

The Board of Appeals’ decision to uphold Beverungen’s ruling was announced by board members Andrew Belt, Jason Garber and Kendra Randall Jolivet during a hearing on December 19.

“The board didn’t buy into the developer’s arguments that the administrative law judge committed an error of law or that his decision was arbitrary and capricious,” McCann said.

“But they said they felt bad for the developer because he is the first to be affected by this problem,” he added. “And the county is in a tough bind because their own review boards are saying they got to spend money to fix something that’s become a public health issue.”

After the board’s decision is rendered in writing, Vanguard has 30 days to appeal to the Baltimore County Circuit Court.

Vanguard is represented by Smith, Gildea & Schmidt, whose principals, Michael Paul Smith and David K. Gildea, co-hosted a fundraiser for Olszewski before the 2018 general election.

Smith is the son of James T. “Jim” Smith Jr., a former circuit court judge who was the county’s chief executive between 2002 and 2010.

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