For 14 years, a developer has been trying to open a landfill in Anne Arundel County. And for 14 years, the county has fought it, creating a landfill-size volume of paper from lawsuits.
But instead of giving up, Silver Spring-based Halle Cos. has become creative, giving what would otherwise be yet another rancorous development war in the Washington suburbs a novel twist.
The company has agreed to pay an Oklahoma-based Indian tribe as much as $1.4 million a year to take over the land and to apply to make it tribal property. If the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs grants the request -- a decision could come this week -- the 480-acre parcel near Odenton would be exempt from county and state regulation, meaning that neither entity would have any say, or regulatory authority, over the landfill.
If that proposal isn't approved, Halle has a backup plan. The firm has lined up community support for the landfill by agreeing to build athletic fields for the surrounding neighborhoods, provide as much as $750,000 a year for recreation and libraries, and even build the fast-growing community a high school.
County Executive Janet S. Owens (D) has fought both plans, saying she fears that if the landfill site, about a half-mile from the Little Patuxent River near Route 3, fell under tribal jurisdiction, the county would have no way of ensuring that it doesn't become an environmental hazard. She also fears that the proposal is a "guise to bring in gaming."
The second proposal is just as irksome, she said, because it's a blatant attempt by a developer to influence public policy by essentially paying for community support.
"The county is not for sale," she said.
Although she said a landfill would "wreak havoc on the community," with traffic and noise, she added, "I do admire their ingenuity."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has waded into the skirmish: In May, he wrote a 10-page letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, urging it to deny the proposal.
If the property fell under tribal jurisdiction, the landfill would "effectively become unregulated," he wrote. He added that without stringent regulation by the state and county, the landfill could potentially "pollute groundwater supplies and impact local domestic drinking water wells."
Stephen Fleischman, a vice president of Halle, said the county has unfairly denied the project at every turn, forcing the company to the courts and to ultimately find other ways to get the proposal through.
"We have never had any intention of doing anything we weren't supposed to do," he said. "We're going to make sure it's run correctly. . . . We've got a piece of land that we invested in 15 years ago, and the county will not allow us to do what we are legally able to do with our property. We're just looking for an alternative to move forward."
The accusation that the landfill would be unregulated is unfounded, he said. If it were tribal property, it would fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he said. The Bureau of Indian Affairs confirmed that.
But Fleischman concedes that the EPA's standards are not as tight as the county's. For example, the county has stricter rules on how high a landfill could rise, he said. The county also requires that landfills be set back from the property line. Because of those regulations, he said, the landfill would contain just building debris if it were regulated by the county. If it were under the federal government's jurisdiction, the landfill would have household waste, which comes in greater quantities and would require the additional space allowed by EPA, he said.
No matter the type of waste, Fleischman said, the company would ensure that it wouldn't cause environmental problems.
"We're not trying to put anything in the landfill that's going to hurt the ground," he said. "The Indians probably care more about the ground than the white man, so to speak. They're not going to let anything happen that's going to contaminate the ground."
In his letter, Ehrlich said that the state is not confident that the EPA "has staff or financial resources available to regularly inspect" the landfill. "The likely outcome is that it will be regulated primarily, if not solely, by its owners."
Edgar French, president of the Delaware Nation of Anadarko, said the tribe has no experience, and no interest, in running a landfill. "We would own the property and say we're going to have a landfill, and then [Halle] would run it," he said.
The tribe, which owns just 12 acres in Oklahoma, is interested in acquiring the property because its members are originally from Maryland and other eastern states, he said. Of course, he added, tribe members don't mind the money or the extra land.
French said the tribe might also want to open a gambling venue similar to one it runs in Oklahoma featuring video bingo. If slot machines are legalized in Maryland, the tribe could also be interested offering that, too. "It would be something we'd think about," French said.
To make its case to the federal agency, the tribe presented its history, including evidence of its ancestral ties to Maryland. The Bureau of Indian Affairs could have a preliminary decision in hand by this week, with an official ruling on the tribe's application sometime thereafter, said Nedra Darling, a bureau spokeswoman.
Darling said the bureau receives numerous applications from tribes "looking for economic opportunities." What's different about this one, she said, is that the Delaware Nation is looking to move so far from its current base.
Like the county government and the state, members of the Greater Crofton Council don't want the land to fall under tribal jurisdiction, said the group's president, Torrey Jacobsen. It would rather Halle go through the county, but it has agreed to support the application in exchange for an array of neighborhood amenities.
The council -- a civic association that represents residents of Crofton, Odenton, Gambrills and Davidsonville -- has resigned itself to a landfill and simply wants something out of it, Jacobsen said.
"We are using our clout so we don't get stepped on anymore," he said. "We are trying to bring the bacon to us. We pay a lot of taxes in the county, and we want something back."
Not all residents support the plan: One group posted signs around the site protesting the project and has created a Web site.
Owens said in an interview last week that as creative as the plan may be, the county is not going to approve it while she is in office. "I can't have a community association speaking for the county," she said. "It totally undermines the role of legislators."