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Clean Rock fight now costing us all

February 15, 1997

In my business, it's not a good idea to get angry. If you let your anger fuel your zeal when you're trying to get information, you tend not to get the whole story.

Last April, I broke that rule, and wrote an angry column about the ongoing zoning dispute between a local company called Clean Rock Industries and its neighbors, Dr. and Mrs. Eric Smith. For those unfamiliar with the case, the short version goes like this:

Five years ago, after being chased away from sites near Huyetts and Beaver Creek, Vincent Iuliano and Richard Jamison settled on an Oak Ridge Drive property near Funkstown, a site once used as a contractor's equipment storage yard. Sandwiched between Interstate 70 and Jeter Paving's yard, it seemed ideal.

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The Smiths, whose family farm also abutted Clean Rock's property, did not agree. They have argued that the property is improperly zoned for what Clean Rock is doing there- receiving construction rubble and turning it into a material suitable for road base.

Though their house is a quarter-mile, at least, from the property line, the Smiths have pursued their case for five years, all the way to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which sent the case back to the local zoning board in December. Now they're taking it to the Maryland Court of Appeals.

In five years, Clean Rock has never been cited for a violation of environmental laws, even though more than 30 state inspections had been performed (as of last April) without turning up anything major, according to Quentin Banks, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Throughout all this, it seemed to me, the local business community had taken a "hands off" attitude toward a fellow involved in a fight over whether he has the right to do business. I got steamed, in part because Iuliano's small son was battling cancer at the same time - and I threatened to bring the story to the attention of national media outlets unless there was an outpouring of business community support.

I didn't do that, for two reasons. Almost immediately after the column ran, Iuliano was invited to join a state economic development panel "to assess the opportunities and challenges facing your industry and to develop an effective strategic plan to make Maryland more responsive and supportive of environment businesses." Someone, it seemed, wanted to give Iuliano's story a state-level hearing.

I also began to hear rumors that the Smiths were attempting to settle. I could never confirm that, until Jan. 30 that is, when someone faxed a friend a copy of the June 3, 1996 offer.

It proposes a trade: In return for dropping their appeals, the Smiths would get 200 feet of Clean Rock's property on the side next to their farm. Clean Rock would also erect a 20-foot-high berm (a man-made hill, in effect), plant pine trees on top of it and erect a six-foot chain link fence.

And although the old family homestead and the Smiths' more modern home are accessible from a lane near the Funktown bridge, the offer states that the proposal is contingent on "the county's willingness to allow the Smiths access to their property from East Oak Ridge Drive via the panhandle that would be conveyed as part of the settlement."

Could the case still be settled? Eric Smith says that when the settlement offer was proffered, the agreement was that if it went public, everything was off.

Well, maybe not. James W. Stone, the Smiths' attorney, told me that while "It is true that that was our position in the beginning, my clients are going to look seriously at anything worth looking at."

They will not, however, discuss any of the details of the first proposal, or negotiate through a third party, or in the newspaper, Stone said.

And Iluiano? I expected him to say "forget it," but he surprised me, saying he'd made a counter-offer. It goes like this:

- Iuliano would give the Smiths the panhandle-shaped property they need to access the back portion of their property.

- The Smiths would drop all lawsuits, agree not to make any statements about Clean Rock and give Iuliano $250,000 plus legal fees.

Could it happen? Maybe, because I'm sure that both sides are more than a little weary at this point. It should happen, because it's not only in the county's best interest to minimize problems between industries and their neighbors, but a settlement will also spare county taxpayers the expense of further appeals.

Spare taxpayers? Yes. Because the Smiths' appeal has been filed not against Clean Rock but against a Board of Zoning Appeals decision, the county and the taxpayers are paying. The whole thing hits a little closer to home when it's your money involved, doesn't it?

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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