Judge's ruling challenges council on zoning Experts call overturn of Balto. Co. parcel's designation 'bizarre'

March 17, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore County Circuit judge's decision in a minor zoning case appears to challenge the County Council's status as the final authority on how land is used in the sprawling county.

But several county zoning experts say Judge Christian M. Kahl's ruling -- which granted manufacturing status for 5 acres in Glen Arm that Prosser Co. Inc. wants to develop for two subsidiaries -- is "bizarre" and likely to be reversed on appeal.

The ruling March 7 in favor of the Glen Arm company, which designs and builds chemical processing plants, came despite a council decision to deny a manufacturing designation in the October 1996 comprehensive rezoning.

At stake now is whether the judge or the council gets the final say on land use. If the judge is proven right on appeal, it could open a new route for developers unable to get the zoning they want from the elected council.

The council rules on rezoning petitions for the entire county every four years after a 14-month review. But the county has a process for changing zoning between the council's quadrennial reviews in cases of error.

The judge says that process can be manipulated by those protesting a particular zoning decision.

In his ruling, Kahl said that letting the council's zoning decisions prevail would mean that those opposed to a planned development could "simply delay it to death by filing endless series of appeals and reviews" until the next council zoning review.

That, he said, would "totally emasculate" the error-correction process.

"That's a bizarre argument," said J. Carroll Holzer, a veteran zoning attorney and frequent community advocate. "It sounds to me like the Circuit Court will be reversed."

County People's Counsel Peter Max Zimmerman, a county-paid independent lawyer whose job is to be a public advocate and defend the zoning maps the County Council adopts every four years, said he will appeal to the Court of Special Appeals.

"It's basic Maryland law that legislative decisions in any zoning case prevail over any pending administrative cases. The court must respect the legislative process," he said.

Even lawyers who represent developers agree with that view.

Benjamin Bronstein, a former county planning board member and frequent advocate for developers, says that only getting construction under way could frustrate the council's authority.

Prosser Co. wanted the zoning changed from residential and office uses to manufacturing for a parcel at the northeast corner of the intersection of Long Green Pike and Glen Arm Road, across from its current plant.

Prosser is planning to build new quarters for two small subsidiary companies: Amereihn Co., a small Fullerton steel fabricating business, and El-Tex Industries Inc., a Baltimore manufacturer of electronic control boards.

Community groups fought the rezoning. "We'd like to preserve the rural village aspect of Glen Arm," said Katherine Tyler Gabriel, vice president of the Long Green Valley Association.

Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder opposed the rezoning for the same reason. Bartenfelder represents Glen Arm and has authority over zoning in that area, under the council's informal system of letting members control zoning in their own districts.

The council must have the final say on zoning matters, he said, "otherwise it throws the whole process into chaos."

Holzer said the reasoning that should have prevailed in this case is the same logic used by the state's highest court in November in an even more controversial Relay development dispute.

In that case, Carl Julio's Sycamore Realty company wanted zoning that would have allowed construction of as many as 220 houses on 24 acres in Relay. The County Council imposed more restrictive zoning.

The state's Court of Appeals upheld the council, saying prior administrative decisions that would have allowed the higher density were invalid once the council rezoned the land.

Now, as a result of the council and court rulings, no more than 132 houses may be built on the Relay land.

Pub Date: 3/17/97

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