For more than a century, Boring lived up to its name.

The tranquil hamlet off Hanover Pike in northwestern Baltimore County hosted bull roasts and carnivals at its volunteer fire hall, which an early company member had donated to the town for community use. Neighbors lingered over doughnuts and coffee at the Boring Post Office, the county’s oldest. There was little crime to speak of.

The loudest noises came from elderly ladies screeching out of the parking lot in their Cadillacs after one of the fire hall’s spirited bingo nights.

But lately the unincorporated town of about 200 residents has been anything but quiet. A zoning dispute over the future of a former fire station on Old Hanover Road has erupted into a noisy legal battle that will resume Thursday when both sides make their cases before Councilmember Julian Jones at New Town High School in Owings Mills. The meeting starts at 6 p.m.

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Under the county’s comprehensive zoning process, done every four years, the individual councilmembers for each district are the sole deciders of any requested zoning change. Jones inherited Boring from Councilmember Wade Kach after a redistricting; he has until Aug. 27 to decide on rezoning the fire hall and dozens of other properties.

Benches outside the post office offer petitions, signs, and a place to gather to strategize about their opposition to rezoning. The Boring Community Association is also active on Facebook.
Benches outside the Boring Post Office offer petitions, signs and a place for residents to strategize about their opposition to proposed rezoning. The Boring Community Association is also active on Facebook. (Rona Kobell / The Baltimore Banner)

At issue is whether Santo and Debra Mirabile, a past president and former board member, respectively, of the Hanover Road Association, can use the fire station they bought at a steep discount while in their former positions to host their family construction business. The property’s current zoning is split between rural conservation and local business. That allows many uses, including a shopping center, an antique market and animal boarding.

The Mirabiles want to change the zoning to manufacturing light, which would allow assembly plants, processing and other intensive industrial uses. That would allow them to relocate their business, which constructs utility pipes and repairs vehicles, to the now-empty hall, a site closer to their family farm.

“When the word ML came out, I almost fell out of my chair,” said James Blum, a longtime real estate broker who owns adjacent properties that house a post office and other offices. He called ML “the most outrageous change I’ve ever seen, and it’s being done solely to make millions of dollars for the Mirabiles, and it will not benefit anyone here.”

The Mirabiles counter that they purchased the fire hall to be good neighbors and that the transaction was aboveboard. Though he was president of the neighborhood improvement association in 2020, Santo Mirabile said, he recused himself from its official dealings with the transaction.

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“There was nothing that would restrict what any officer or member could do in their private life,” said Santo Mirabile, referring to the 40-member homeowners association. “Being a community leader at the time, I was providing the community with an opportunity to find a great steward — to make sure it was going to be run in a manner that was not intrusive to the community.”

But neighbors say an intrusive use is exactly what the Mirabiles are proposing — and for a property on well water and septic systems near the headwaters of McGill Run, a stream that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has been working to restore. Those neighbors attempted to join the Hanover Road Association and force a vote on the matter, only to have the meeting canceled just as the pandemic began.

Undeterred, James Blum and his son Sam, a computer engineer, joined longtime neighbor Pam Ecker to form the Boring Community Association to represent homes closest to the fire hall. (Some residents belong to both.) They oppose the zoning change, the manner in which the sale came about and what they consider the secrecy surrounding the deal.

“So, Santo is the president of the Hanover Road Association. And he’s buying the fire department, and he’s negotiating with himself, and he’s also recusing himself,” Sam Blum said. The Mirabiles are no longer on the Hanover Road Association board.

James Blum stands in front of the Boring Post Office, the oldest in Baltimore County. He owns the property, which became part of a zoning request for a change in use to manufacturing. Blum never requested not wanted his property to be included in the request. The Mirabiles, who put in the zoning request, said the inclusion of Blum's property was an inadvertent mistake.
James Blum stands in front of the Boring Post Office, the oldest in Baltimore County. He owns the property, which became part of a zoning request for a change in use to manufacturing. Blum never requested nor wanted his property to be included in the request. A couple seeking the change said the inclusion of Blum’s property was inadvertent. (Rona Kobell / The Baltimore Banner)

Boring, some 20 miles northwest of Towson, began life as Fairview in 1880. It was soon renamed for the first postmaster, David Boring, because a Fairview already existed on the railroad. Local residents organized a fire company in 1907, and the town incorporated in 1911.

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Andrew Armacost, a fire department stalwart, donated land for the firehouse; the deed stipulated that the property should be for community use. Town fathers removed that restriction in the 1960s to meet requirements for a bank loan when the building needed an addition.

In 2017, the Boring and Arcadia fire companies sold their firehouses and merged at a larger station, the Upperco Volunteer Fire Co. Upperco leaders approached then-Councilmember Kach, who represented the area, and asked if he could change the zoning so the property would fetch more on the market. Kach offered not only to back a zoning change but to help the volunteer fire department secure a $3 million matching grant for the new station. Kach said he figured Upperco could raise much of the $3 million from the sale to match the county’s grant.

But when Upperco approached Kach, the fire station was already under contract to the Mirabiles for $670,000 — about half of its assessed value. Kach said he didn’t know about the contract and wouldn’t have sought the zoning change if he had.

Scott Boose, president of the Upperco Volunteer Fire Co. at the time, said he was no longer involved in the fire company. Asked to explain the deal, he hung up on a Baltimore Banner reporter.

The Mirabiles say the volunteer fire department did its own appraisal and that it came in much lower, and they negotiated from there. They also purchased a home that is part of the property for $70,000, even though similar homes at the time were fetching about $250,000, according to the Maryland Real Property Database. The $70,000 was less than the $75,000 that the house sold for in the 1990s, despite rapid appreciation of housing values in the county.

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As he navigated the zoning fight in 2020, Kach told the parties to work it out and enact covenants that would safeguard against the neighbors’ worst fears. Colleagues on the Hanover Road Association board said the Mirabiles did not provide details about the deal and refused to leave the room at various times when board members attempted to negotiate with residents. Eventually, the board asked the Mirabiles to resign. The Hanover Road Association now formally opposes the zoning change, said Paul Merritt, the current president.

Boring Postmaster Arquilla Ridgell stands in the doorway of the post office. She commutes every day from Silver Spring to work because, she says, she loves the community so much. She's fixed up the post office and offers coffee and donuts for residents.
Boring Postmaster Arquilla Ridgell commutes every day from Silver Spring to work because, she says, she loves the community. She's fixed up the post office and offers coffee and doughnuts for residents. (Rona Kobell / The Baltimore Banner)

William Carlson, a Boring resident who met a dozen times with the Mirabiles in an effort to forge a compromise, wrote to Jones that the Mirabiles kept raising new issues and did not seem interested in progress.

“From the beginning, our impression was that the petitioners were merely going through the motion of negotiating so that they could tell Councilman Kach that they tried,” he said, calling their proposed industrial project “an absurdity” in a rural residential neighborhood.

With the parties unable to agree, Kach split the difference. He changed the zoning from residential with a special exception for a fire hall to the current designation, which allows small businesses and would keep the rural character.

But 2020 is not 2024. The community is now introducing itself to Jones. The Mirabiles have hired zoning attorney Tim Kotroco, the county’s former director of permits and development management. Kotroco knows most of the county planning board members, according to board Chair Nancy Hafford. After Kotroco advocated on behalf of the Mirabiles, the board briefly discussed options.

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“Even though there was a lot of public opposition, the owner is willing to work with the residents. He was the former president of the association, so he knows them well,” planning board member Emily Brophy, a commercial real estate professional, told her colleagues. “Honestly, rather than having a former fire department just sitting there empty, the best redevelopment potential we have for this site is really to have a local resident that is actually interested in the success of the property.”

Planning board member Peter Arrey, a community activist, disagreed. “We have to keep in mind the community. Not even a single person supported this.”

Baltimore County Councilman Julian Jones. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Board member Howard Perlow, who owns a real estate settlement company, countered that the community would oppose any use. “You gotta find something to give the owner of the property the ability to use it,” he said. “You gotta give him enough to get his money back.”

Ultimately, the planning board voted 7-6 to recommend the zoning change. Jones does not have to follow its recommendation. But at least half the time, according to the county, the councilmembers do. Jones has spoken to the Blums and also to Kotroco; he said he has not decided whether to follow the planning board’s recommendation. Hafford referred questions on the vote to planning board member Brophy, who could not be reached for comment.

As part of her organizing efforts for Thursday’s meeting, Pam Ecker gathered 70 neighbors at a local barn and showed the planning board’s meeting on a big screen.

“You should have heard the moans and groans,” Ecker said. “They never reached out to us. I don’t understand why the planning board thinks the Mirabiles need to be made financially whole. Is he going to keep going back to the well every four years?”

All over Boring, MD, are signs like this one protesting a possible zoning change that would turn the fire hall into a manufacturing/industrial site.
All over Boring are signs like this one protesting a possible zoning change that would turn the fire hall into a manufacturing/industrial site. (Rona Kobell / The Baltimore Banner)

The Mirabiles said they tried to lease the building and to sell it for anywhere from $1 million to $2 million. They had no takers. And, while neighbors fear the owners will flip the property if they receive the ML zoning and stand to benefit when its value increases with new uses, the Mirabiles say they have no plans to do so.

They acknowledge that change is hard, especially in a community where residents still live on namesake roads like Osborn, and Borings still show up at the post office. These are old family properties, and neighbors were accustomed to having a community asset for bingo games and fundraisers.

The Mirabiles say the offer to negotiate about uses remains open. They would even entertain reopening the hall for bingo and other functions; those have ceased since the Mirabiles bought the property.

“We see ourselves as a part of the community. Certain people have been hostile in return,” Debra Mirabile said. “We’re good people. We’ve done good things. There is really no winning, it seems.”