Fallston group battling to keep foster-care facility out of neighborhood

January 08, 1995|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Sun Staff Writer

More than three years into a battle against an agency of the United Methodist Church, a group of Fallston residents say they still haven't had a fair chance in court to voice their opposition to a proposed foster-care facility in their neighborhood.

But a lawyer for the agency that wants to build the home on church-owned property at the corner of Harford and Reckord roads says the neighbors are dead wrong and are displaying "gall" in trying to revive arguments that they lost long ago.

Sitting as the Zoning Board of Appeals, the County Council Tuesday heard from both sides, but it delayed for a week its decision on whether to support the Fallston Meadows Homeowners Association's appeal or to affirm a zoning hearing examiner's ruling last summer that the case against the proposed $6 million facility should be dismissed.

The 10-building complex, proposed by the Board of Child Care of the United Methodist Church, would house 60 abused and neglected youngsters ages 2 to 17 from throughout Maryland.

In January 1992, after months of public hearings, a Harford County hearing examiner recommended granting a special exception to the zoning code to allow the group home to be built in an agricultural district. Many residents along the rural stretch of Harford Road, just north of the Baltimore County line, have been at war with the Board of Child Care ever since.

They appealed the hearing examiner's ruling to the Zoning Board of Appeals, Harford Circuit Court and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, where they lost in October 1993. The neighbors regrouped and filed a new appeal based on new arguments last February. Led by its president, Salvatore J. Glorioso, the Fallston Meadows Community Association argued that the complex proposed on 26 acres was more than a single group home as defined by the county zoning code. The code states that a group home is "a building housing more than eight unrelated individuals operated as a single household with common cooking and eating facilities."

The Board of Child Care wants to build a complex of five "cottages" housing 12 children each. Plans also call for an administration building, maintenance building, commercial kitchen, gymnasium with swimming pool and three-car garage.

Zoning Hearing Examiner William F. Casey shot down residents' efforts last July by ruling that the community association lacked the standing necessary to appeal. He also ruled that the neighbors had had ample opportunity to contest the definition of a group home in their first appeal, which began two years earlier.

Residents again disagreed with the hearing examiner's ruling and again appealed to the Zoning Board of Appeals. The arguments Tuesday represented the first zoning case to come before the new council in its role as the appeals board.

Attorney Michael Leaf, representing the Board of Child Care, told council members that the residents "had the gall to come back after losing in the Court of Special Appeals to try to reopen the case."

He insisted that the question of whether the proposed facility constitutes a group home was dealt with in the first appeal.

In addition, he said, the same individuals could not come back and reargue the case, this time under the name of a civic association that was not itself a property owner.

"Generally, you only get one bite at the apple," Mr. Leaf said. "You give it your best shot the first time around. . . . Otherwise, these cases would go on forever."

But the neighbors said they were never given a chance to argue the definition of a group home.

They said the 20-day deadline for appealing the administrative interpretation of the definition came and went 3 1/2 years ago, before the neighborhood was informed of plans for the church-owned property.

The interpretation was handed down in a personal letter from former Planning Director William Carroll to Mr. Leaf in June 1991. It became the basis for the church agency's request for a special exception.

Instead of arguing about the group home definition in their first round of appeals, the neighbors concentrated on arguing that the complex would place a burden on services in the area, including roads, schools, wells and septic fields. The area is not served by public water and sewerage.

"We figured we had an uphill battle, but we didn't think we'd lose on so many county errors," said Harford Road resident Donna Murphy after the hearing last week.

In response to the three-year battle in her district, and as her campaign for council president geared up, Councilwoman Joanne S. Parrott last summer introduced legislation to require county officials to notify neighbors whenever an administrative interpretation of the zoning code is delivered on a property. That bill passed in September.

Mrs. Parrott, who had abstained from voting in the residents' first appeal in 1992, again excused herself from the hearing last week.

In other action last week, the council approved transferring $363,850 in appropriations to construction of an addition to the Emergency Operations Center in Hickory. The money comes from a grant last summer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and requires council approval before it can be applied to the capital project.

A total of $272,888 will be used for construction of the new building, said James Jewell, the county treasurer. The remaining $90,962 was appropriated for electrical and mechanical work in the expansion.

The new center, which will coordinate police, fire and 911 dispatch services, is still in the design stage. Officials probably will not break ground for the project before fiscal 1996, which begins July 1, Mr. Jewell said.

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