Conflict claimed on zoning matter Property owner's role on board questioned over mall proposal

March 30, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

As the owner of more than 70 undeveloped acres in the middle of Carroll County's most populated area, Hoby D. Wolf figures he is sitting on a gold mine.

But, can Wolf also sit on the county zoning board and rule on issues critical to development in Eldersburg, his hometown?

Residents arguing before the Board of Zoning Appeals against a proposed shopping center on Route 32 say Wolf has a conflict of interest. If he votes to allow commercial development on a property near his, he will increase the commercial value of his property, residents said.

"He is basically working on the zoning for his own property," said Nimrod Davis of Eldersburg, a member of a local planning advisory group.

Even the appearance of conflict must be investigated, said Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a watchdog citizens group that lobbies for good government.

"If citizens say something does not look right, the allegation has to be taken seriously," said Skullney. "It is the public's perception of how public office is used that counts, and that should be the first test of an activity.

"For there to be nothing wrong, the public has to be comfortable with the exercise of political power," she said. "We give them the power, and we say how it is used."

Since Wolf was appointed to the three-member board a year ago, the shopping center proposal is the most contentious issue he has faced, he said.

"If I honestly thought voting to put in a shopping center would affect my property value, I would recuse myself," Wolf said. "The truth is, any development increases the value of my property for one single reason: It makes available land scarcer.

"Even if I do nothing, the land value will increase. There is no conflict," he said.

Before the $30 million Promenade at Eldersburg can proceed through the county's development-review process, the appeals board must approve a petition to allow retail use on land set aside for industrial use.

Land not affected

John T. "Jack" Lyburn Jr., county director of economic development, said Wolf's land would not be affected, no matter how the shopping center case is resolved.

"Whether it stays industrial or is zoned for retail, I can't see any effects to Wolf's property at all," Lyburn said.

The 34-acre site in the Eldersburg Business Center is about a mile from Wolf's Oklahoma Road property, which includes his residence, a few rental units and an airport.

Wolf has refused to recuse himself from the hearing on the shopping center, which goes into its fourth day today.

No legal grounds

Michelle M. Ostrander, an attorney representing residents opposed to the project, said she has not pushed Wolf to recuse himself. She acknowledges that "many people are uneasy."

"There are no legal grounds to recuse," she said. "He has no immediate direct interest in the outcome. His property is not abutting the center. Everyone in Eldersburg has an interest in development in Eldersburg."

But she has frequently objected to Wolf's asides and statements on how Eldersburg has changed in the past 50 years. During the testimony, Wolf, a South Carroll resident since 1946, has offered lessons in the founding of Eldersburg and has often asked residents why they moved there.

His comments differ markedly from those of board colleague James Schumacher, who asks questions directly related to testimony.

"Wolf begs us to ask a question about conflict," Ostrander said.

No ruling sought

County ethics boards decide conflict issues, but the Carroll ethics panel has not been asked to rule in this case.

In Howard and Anne Arundel counties, property owners serving on planning or zoning boards are not considered in conflict unless they have ties to the developer or own land within a parcel to be developed.

"Just owning adjacent property does not seem to be a conflict," said Karen Knight, assistant to Councilman Darrel E. Drown, chairman of the Howard Zoning Board. "Whether there is profit is strictly opinion."

Pub Date: 3/30/98

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