Daisy Thinks Plan Isn't So Terrific

COMMENT

September 26, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS | KEVIN THOMAS,Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

The Rev. Steward H. Frazier Jr. asked a compelling question in a letter to the editor that appeared on this page a week ago.

Unfortunately, he also chose to answer it.

The question was whether the Howard County Planning Board used "racist information" when it decided earlier this month to deny a group called Terrific, Inc. a zoning variance to run a retreat center in Daisy. Terrific is a Washington-based non-profit organization that provides housing and services to terminally ill children, the elderly and disabled. According to backers, the retreat center would be used as a getaway for people who care for the dying.

Mr. Frazier accused the planning board of veiled racism, and painted residents who oppose Terrific's project with the same broad brush. With all due respect to Mr. Frazier, the accusation does accurately describe the motivations of some, but it is unfair to those who have legitimate concerns about Terrific's plans for the Daisy site.

Having interviewed Ron Reis and his wife, Frances Kohl, whose home backs to the Terrific property and who have been at the forefront of the opposition, I am convinced that they are not racists. They are reacting to a fear that has nothing to do with race, and I can understand why. (The couple's response to Mr. Frazier's letter is elsewhere on this page.)

The building that would house the Terrific project would be run under the auspices of the Rev. Debbie Tate, Terrific's president and pastor of Daisy United Methodist Church, which is a predominantly black congregation.

The Reis-Kohl home sits 250 feet from the Terrific house. The couple feels that even though they and their neighbors own a lot of property -- 32 acres in the case of Terrific -- the retreat center would be too close for comfort. The Terrific home is only four feet from a playhouse the Reis-Kohls' two children use.

Aggravating the situation, the Reis-Kohls believe they have gotten conflicting information from Ms. Tate about the way the center would be used, the number of people who would stay there and the number of cars that would use a driveway that the two properties share.

Chief among these inconsistencies is an assertion that Ms. Tate told Daisy residents that Terrific would use the property as a training center for workers from other countries. At a Board of Appeals hearing last Thursday, opponents of the retreat turned over part of Terrific's 1992 annual report, in which the idea of an international training center was mentioned. Rev. Tate could not be reached for comment.

Such concerns may have also led the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning to recommend against a variance for the project initially, before it reversed its position after it received new information from Terrific.

One planning official said that when Terrific's representatives came before the planning board, however, they had to be "asked the same question five different ways" in order to get a clear

answer. And ultimately, the county Planning Board turned thumbs down on Terrific's request. It expressed concerns about how restrictions on the property would be enforced, and about a lack of information from the organization.

It was enough to raise red flags for me. The bottom line is that the Reis-Kohls and 320 nearby residents who signed a petition against the retreat feel the privacy and rural environment they sought when they bought by moving to Daisy is in jeopardy.

"It's not fair," Mr. Reis said. "It is not the lifestyle that we came out here for."

I would feel the same way if my own property were being affected. And the race of the other party wouldn't matter.

Still, the shelter opposition has an uphill battle. The matter is in the hands of the county Board of Appeals, which is compelled to follow regulations established by the zoning board. Those regulations allow special exceptions to be granted for retreat centers on rural properties. Unless something unforeseen occurs, the appeals board will approve Terrific's request, planning officials said.

The Board of Appeals, however, can -- and should -- specify restrictions on the use of the Terrific property. Those restrictions should be tough enough to address some of the neighbors' concerns and be specific enough to be enforceable.

Short of an all-or-nothing solution, all the parties should focus on the possibility of a just and fair compromise. Accusations of racism in this property use matter are largely unfair, counterproductive and a waste of energy.

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