Fuming over site of test station

June 04, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

A group of business owners is angry that the Maryland Department of Transportation is locating a vehicle exhaust testing facility in a Southwest Baltimore office park and claims the state failed to follow its own procurement laws.

The station, one of 19 in the Baltimore-Washington area being developed by a Nashville, Tenn., company, is scheduled to be built between a Shoney's motel and a private engineering firm on Edgewood Street near Caton Avenue.

Hundreds of cars will be processed each day when the station opens Jan. 1. Neighboring businesses claim that the resulting PTC traffic, noise and air pollution will be intolerable.

"We'll be seeing 600 cars a day queued up to the bays belching out fumes right next to our fresh air intake and our employee picnic tables," said Richard P. Mueller, a consulting engineer whose Mueller Associates II Inc. offices are adjacent to the site of the planned station.

Mr. Mueller and others in the Caton I-95 Office Park claim that state transportation officials improperly awarded a $96.9 million contract to MARTA Technologies Inc. to build and manage the testing stations. Specifically, they contend, the state failed to make sure the company planned to locate its facilities at properly zoned sites.

Opponents have received the backing of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Baltimore's planning office has informed the state transportation department and MARTA representatives that the emissions testing station does not meet the park's office-only zoning restrictions.

Under terms of the procurement, MARTA was required to follow local zoning laws when selecting locations and the state was obligated to purchase the stations after their construction.

But a last-minute clause -- inserted at the request of Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein when the contract was approved in July by the Board of Public Works -- requires the state to buy the land before the stations are built.

Mr. Goldstein's stated reasoning was to avoid paying thousands of dollars in local property taxes by making the purchases as early as possible. But the state's ownership had the additional effect of freeing the stations from local zoning restrictions.

"We had a building inspector stop work on the site, but the state came in and said they had autonomy," said Alfred W. Barry, assistant director of the city planning department. "We'd like to see them use another site, but the state feels they're the state and they can do what they want."

State officials claim the 3.8-acre site does conform to the city's zoning ordinance. They point out that the city's planning department gave initial approval to MARTA's plans, even asking for specific changes on how the building was to be positioned on the site.

Philip Der, a partner in Whitney, Bailey, Cox & Magnani, the Towson engineering firm that is supervising site design for MARTA, said he heard no objection from the city until neighbors started protesting.

"We contacted the city as if we were a private developer and incorporated changes they recommended even though they weren't required," Mr. Der said. "The state could have told us we didn't even have to make a submission to the local jurisdiction."

John A. Moeller, an engineer with the state transportation department who has overseen site selection for the stations, said local zoning laws have generally not addressed vehicle emissions testing stations "since they are basically a new thing."

"Opponents regard a vehicle testing station as a service station. They aren't," Mr. Moeller said. "This just tests the exhausts of your vehicle like a laboratory test."

Yet if the city is interpreting its zoning ordinance correctly now, the state may have failed to follow its own bidding procedures in a contract that has been a political issue no one wants to handle from the start.

Last year, Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed a panel to oversee the awarding of the lucrative contract. Black legislators accused the administration of bias against the company that currently runs test stations and is chaired by a black Montgomery County resident.

Under the state contract, new test stations had to be located within 12 miles of 85 percent of the public whose vehicles must be tested. All existing stations will be closed at the end of this year.

The new stations will make possible a more elaborate pollution test mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act for areas with severe air pollution. In addition to Baltimore and Baltimore-Washington suburban counties, residents of Calvert, Cecil, Charles, Frederick, Queen Anne's and Washington counties will be subject to the procedure for the first time next year.

Mr. Moeller said MARTA gained little advantage over its competitors by choosing the Baltimore site, however, because two of the other three bidders had also planned to build a station there. The site was formerly owned by Bloomfield Inc., a Fairfax Savings Bank subsidiary that disposes of foreclosed properties.

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