Phone tower wins critical court appeal County ordinance came too late to stop construction

'A race was on'

Sykesville mayor calls for an end to the controversy

June 04, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Maryland's second-highest court has upheld the rights of a contractor who built a 200-foot telecommunications tower on residential land near Sykesville.

In a 62-page opinion issued yesterday, the Court of Special Appeals reviewed the convoluted tower history, which involved "so many administrative actions by so many administrative agents and agencies, so many overlapping chronologies, and so many minor themes intertwined with the major themes that there is a real danger that the wheat will get lost in the chaff."

The court cut through the voluminous records, focusing solely on the issue of vested rights. It ruled that West Shore Communications had engaged in substantial construction at the Hollenberry Road site prior to revocation of its building permits, and took the county to task for its lack of foresight.

The controversy dates to early 1994. After lengthy testimony from neighbors opposed to the project, the county Board of Zoning Appeals approved the tower, contingent on site plan approval from the county Planning Commission.

As the project made its way through Carroll's development review process, the county was considering an ordinance to prohibit towers in residential areas.

Still, the county issued West Shore Communications a building permit on Oct. 28, 1994, and delayed action on the ordinance. That delay gave the contractor "a golden window of opportunity to change the status quo over the intervening weekend," the court said.

"At that point a race was on between the construction process and the legislative process," the court said.

Three days after the building permit was issued, the previous board of County Commissioners -- who left office in December 1994 -- visited the construction site, where they enacted the ordinance, revoked the permit and issued a stop-work order.

Too late, said the court.

By that time, "significant excavation and stockpiling of materials was already under way," the court said. The county "may not now look wistfully down the road not chosen."

In February 1995, the Board of Zoning Appeals ruled in West Shore's favor, and the Circuit Court upheld that decision in July and reinstated the building permit.

By December, West Shore had completed construction of the steel tower on land leased from William Shand, whose home is on the site.

Sykesville officials and Kathleen Blanco-Losada, an adjoining property owner who fought the tower, remain convinced the project should never have been allowed in a residential area.

"I take some satisfaction in that I did everything I could," said Blanco-Losada. "Had the county done what it should have in the first place, I would never have felt compelled to take this issue as far as I did."

She spent more than $12,000 and worked nine months in the law office of Judith Stainbrook, who wrote the appeal in exchange for her labor.

"Until the day I die, every time I look out the window, I will know that if the county had acted responsibly, the tower would not be there," said Blanco-Losada.

After repeated setbacks, Blanco-Losada said she had held little hope of succeeding in the appellate court.

Sykesville Mayor Jonathan Herman said he is calling a halt to the fight. After reading the opinion, he plans to make a formal statement at the June 10 council meeting.

Mark Sapperstein, vice president of West Shore, said the latest ruling "should put an end to the controversy."

"This is probably the most controversial tower I have built," he said. "Once it was built, though, I heard little disapproval from neighbors. Perception is different from reality."

Sapperstein had originally offered the county free space on the tower for its emergency communications systems. He would not say whether that offer still stands.

The county plans to build a $300,000 tower on the grounds of Springfield Hospital Center to handle its needs in South Carroll.

Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown, who took office in December 1994 amid the controversy, has repeatedly opposed communications towers in residential areas. His criticism lies with his predecessors and with Cellular One, for whom West Shore built the tower, Brown said.

"My first reaction to the decision is that the die was cast when the previous board stopped work on the tower three days after issuing a building permit," he said.

Pub Date: 6/04/96

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