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After 17 years, furor over asbestos simmers
Proposed Harford dump unites neighbors, affects political careers
By Justin Fenton
April 29, 2006 - It has been 17 years since Ronald Bishop and his Webster neighbors first heard alarming reports that someone planned an asbestos dump in their midst. Fearing for their health and safety -- and for the future of tiny St. James AME Church, which anchors the historic Harford County community and was founded by freed slaves, the residents banded together to stop the project.
Since then, the dispute over Richard D. Schafer's proposed rubble fill has launched political careers and ended others, shifting the balance of power in Harford County. It has spawned more than a dozen court challenges, racking up millions in legal fees.
The dispute has brought together white and black neighbors whose cultural divisions had kept them strangers, and it was the impetus behind a bill passed by the General Assembly this session that is designed to chip away at the rubble fill's chances. Yet the struggle drags on, with no end in sight
"There's probably a few more rounds to go if [Schafer's] got the stomach for it," said Sherrilyn Ifill, a law professor at the University of Maryland who has represented the residents pro bono since 1994.
"I would hope he would recognize that this is not an appropriate location, pick up his marbles and go home, but we've long since given up hope on that."
The frenzy surrounding the plan -- which once galvanized hundreds to protest -- died down years ago, but those still engaged are as involved as ever.
George and Winifred Jonas, who had hoped to travel to Paris after retirement, say they never went for fear of missing a break in the case. In their front yard is a homemade sign notifying neighbors of coming zoning meetings.
"It's just not right that someone thinks they could go in there and destroy the lives of people who worked that hard," said Winifred "Wink" Jonas, 81.
It began in 1989
The dispute started inconspicuously with a hurried vote by the County Council in 1989 to approve a 55-acre rubble fill near Havre de Grace that had been endorsed by local and state officials. Among those abstaining from the 4-0 vote, which added the site to the county waste-management plan, was Schafer's father, a councilman representing Bel Air.
Opponents called it a sweetheart deal that exploited a low-income, mostly black community. The proposed site is behind the properties of St. James and more than a dozen homeowners, who get their water from wells.
Over coffee recently at a Bel Air diner, Schafer said that he and his company, Maryland Reclamation Associates, have spent years pursuing a landfill that would have served its purpose and closed after five years.
Construction debris is shipped out of state at a higher cost, and a Joppa facility is nearing capacity. Schafer, who also owns a construction company, thinks his project could fill the void.
Schafer said he bought the site contingent on approval by the county, which once endorsed the project but is trying to shut him out after siding with the residents.
"This is a very important issue for everybody in Harford County, not just me or the people on the other side," he said. "You either believe in land rights or you don't. The government can't change its mind and cause you damages, and they're the ones who will have to pay if this becomes a takings case."
After suing the county multiple times, Schafer might soon turn his focus to the state. With Harford legislators leading the charge, the General Assembly just passed a bill that would let counties change their solid waste management plans, even after they have been approved by the state. It will become law if Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signs it.
Sponsored by Del. Barry Glassman, a Republican who represents northern Harford, the bill also addresses the concerns of leaders in Kent and Queen Anne's counties, who have been fighting a proposed rubble fill near a warm-water fishery at Unicorn Lake since 2000.
Glassman knows the issue well. Now chairman of the Harford delegation, he was a 27-year-old captain at the nearby Level Volunteer Fire Company when his vocal role in the landfill dispute launched his political career.
The rubble-fill furor elevated Glassman but toppled William H. Cox Jr., a veteran Harford politician and a leader in the House of Delegates.
Despite the power Cox wielded in securing funding for county projects as the majority leader and ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, he drew voters' ire when word got out that he was the real estate agent who had negotiated and stood to gain from the $730,000 sale of the proposed rubble fill site to Schafer.
The 20-year politician failed to carry even his home precinct in the 1990 election, and at least some Republicans credit the controversy with helping them capture a majority of elected offices that year, a hold on power that the GOP retains today.
"To me, that was the turning point of the last vestiges of the Democratic good old boys," Glassman said recently.
For Bishop, 62, standing up for his community has never been about politics. When he was a child, the land along Gravel Hill Road was marked by sand hills and gravel pits where 20 to 50 trucks rumbled in and out from sunrise to sunset. The noise and the dust caked homes and clogged lungs, he recalls. He and others vowed to keep out any other such disruptions.
The residents' campaign to stop the rubble fill blazed trails of a different sort. Frustrated by the council's original approval of the waste site, Bishop and 11 neighbors -- six white, six black -- marched into the circuit courthouse demanding a grand jury investigation of the council.
They were met by a courthouse staff member who invited Bishop and the other five black members in to talk with the state's attorney.
"We said, 'No, there's 12 of us here,'" recalled George Jonas, 78, who is white. "They were so amazed to see black people and white people together like that."
The racial harmony also drew negative attention. In 1996, three days after Christmas, the church grounds were littered with fliers from the Ku Klux Klan telling church members that they were being watched and that the Klan didn't like what it had seen.
Again, the neighborhood rallied around the church, organizing a march that was televised by CNN.
"This has worn all of us out, but the good that has come out is that we now know our neighbors," said the church's pastor, the Rev. Violet Hopkins-Tann, 68.
Most of the struggle in the past decade has been restricted to the courtroom. Schafer filed multimillion-dollar civil lawsuits against four Havre de Grace residents, including the Jonases, who he claimed were defaming the company and exposing it to "scorn, hatred, disgrace, contempt and ridicule."
The Jonases countersued and won $40,000 for court costs.
Over the years, the courts have largely sided with the residents and the county, but in 1996 an appellate judge instructed Schafer to try one more avenue before a decision would be made, a precursor to the latest round of zoning hearings.
If that ruling goes against him, Schafer said, he is likely to head back to court.
'Blink of an eye'
"Ten years is a blink of an eye in the legal system," Schafer said.
Residents say they are just as determined.
"God hasn't brought us this far to leave us," Hopkins-Tann said. "The people will fight until they see it is over. Frankly speaking, I don't plan to lose."