Mothers lead fight against complex Carroll residents compile research to oppose retail center

March 29, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

In the Battle of Eldersburg, stay-at-home moms with time to research are fighting men in designer suits who want to build a retail mecca on their doorsteps. The Carroll County Board of Zoning Appeals will choose the winner.

Bernard G. Robbins, developer of a proposed $30 million Promenade at Eldersburg on congested Route 32 in South Carroll, has led a parade of experts promising ambience, jobs, trendy shops and glitzy theaters to the 28,000 residents of Carroll's most populous area.

"Under the law, it is my right to do," said Robbins. "Eldersburg needs an identity, a place to congregate. We are offering a beautiful retail area."

Donna Slack and Roberta Windham, both stay-at-home mothers, say they prefer anonymity and would just as soon congregate farther from their homes. They are leading the charge against the Promenade.

"It is the battle of the housewives and the Armani suits," said Michelle Ostrander, an attorney representing the women. "I have never seen so much Armani at one place in Carroll County."

Supporting the opponents are retirees and the few people who can take time off work to attend some four days of hearings before the three-member zoning board. The hearings opened Feb. 24 and continued March 6 and 18. Final arguments are expected tomorrow. The board can take up to 30 days to vote. All work sessions are public.

Several hundred upscale homes surround the 34-acre site of the proposed complex, which would be at the north end of Eldersburg Business Center and near existing stores. The industrial park, built with landscaped buffers and below-grade lighting long before many of the residences, has been an appealing neighbor. A shopping center with 14 movie screens does not have the same appeal, residents say.

One-income families cannot afford pricey consultants and long-established lawyers, the women say. So Slack and Windham hired Ostrander, a former county attorney who is well-versed in zoning issues and is in private practice in Westminster.

"It is difficult going up against a phalanx of highly paid experts, but I personally enjoy it," Ostrander said. "It is easy to represent the suits, much harder to go up against them."

Ostrander's case shows how uphill this battle has been. Despite repeated tries, she could find no local experts to testify for her clients. Many pleaded business ties to Robbins.

"As soon as I said I represented the opponents, people hung up," she said.

But she has had a great deal of help from her clients.

Slack and Windham, who live at opposite ends of the Eldersburg Business Center, spent hours combing through cumbersome land records and zoning regulations in both Carroll and neighboring counties.

They copied maps, official documents and newspaper articles; collected petitions; and took photos of their homes and the site from every angle. They had help from Becky Lambros, Ostrander's third client. Lambros is a working mother who has lost time and commissions from her sales job while attending the hearings.

"There is not a laser pointer among them, but they have all worked like Trojans," Ostrander said in a reference to the high-tech gadgets used by her opponents' expert witnesses.

But William B. Dulany, Robbins' attorney, had much of Slack's testimony dismissed as hearsay. Windham is scheduled to testify tomorrow.

"I was trying to be reasonable, but she can only testify to information of her own knowledge," Dulany said. "If she is quoting others, those individuals should be here."

Even so, Slack's testimony often had Robbins and several others dashing to the halls with their cell phones. When Slack cited traffic statistics from the county study, Dulany had his traffic expert return for a rebuttal.

Windham, who has deferred her law career for full-time motherhood, said she resents the "condescending attitude" of her opponents and their arguments that the center will be attractive.

"We are not just throwing something up in the air," Robbins said. "This will be a beautiful retail area. We are making a major investment in Eldersburg. We don't plan to destroy Eldersburg."

If appearances were the primary concern, everyone could look at the colorful Promenade drawings and go home, Windham said.

But to opponents its attraction pales against declining property values, security issues and predictions of 15,000 more vehicles a day on already crowded roads -- statistics from Robbins' traffic expert. A recent county-commissioned traffic study, which did not consider the Promenade, says several key intersections in Eldersburg will fail with minimal development.

"Zoning law is clear that the board cannot approve a project that will significantly increase traffic in the area," Ostrander said.

Robbins has promised $800,000 to improve three intersections near the project, including the crossing at Routes 26 and 32, the worst in Carroll County. County officials have said frequently that no public money and no major road improvements are planned soon for South Carroll.

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