County decides to fund lawsuit Zoning appeals board decision on shopping center is challenged

July 31, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The County Commissioners voted 2-1 yesterday to fund a lawsuit challenging the Board of Zoning Appeals' approval of a proposed $32 million shopping center in Eldersburg.

Commissioners W. Benjamin Brown and Richard T. Yates voted to fund the lawsuit filed by the county planning commission. Commissioner Donald I. Dell voted against funding it.

The planning panel -- which has taken the appeals board to court more than a dozen times in the past two years but has yet to win -- noted concerns about traffic and the shopping center's impact on the neighborhood among reasons for the suit.

"We're talking about a legal question" of whether the appeals board acted correctly when it gave developer Bernard G. Robbins permission to build a shopping center on a site zoned for industrial use, Brown said.

"The planning commission has voted twice to have the legal question answered. We've funded appeals in the past. It's in everybody's interest to get an answer."

The Board of Zoning Appeals voted 2-1 April 20 to grant Robbins a conditional use to build three restaurants, a 14-screen theater with stadium seating, a 300,000-square-foot retail complex and a two-story office center on a 36-acre site at Londontown Boulevard and Route 32.

Dell said he voted against the suit because "we've been advised [by county attorneys in closed session] that the case is not winnable. I have to think about the cost." The county is operating on a tight budget and "it is very hard to find revenues" for unanticipated projects, he said.

The planning commission has asked that the commissioners be prepared to fund the suit through an appeal to Maryland's highest court, if necessary.

Vigorous opposition

The initial cost would be $7,145 to reproduce the exhibits and transcript of the Board of Zoning Appeals hearing required by the Circuit Court.

Residents and merchants at a two-decade-old shopping mall about a mile from the proposed Promenade opposed it so vigorously during six days of hearings that Robbins' request became one of the most protracted cases in Board of Zoning Appeals history.

The decision to allow the shopping center as a conditional use became official May 29 when the opinion was published.

Some planning commission members fear the shopping center would further clog the nearby Route 26-Route 32 intersection -- already the most congested crossroads in the county.

Decision reaffirmed

The commission had to file an appeal by July 29 or drop the case. Members voted unanimously June 15 to take the appeals board to court.

Some members who supported the suit initially did so to keep the commission's options open.

When the commission revisited the issue July 14, the decision to pursue the case was reaffirmed on a 3-2 vote. The panel agreed to file the suit on three grounds:

The real traffic impacts will be much worse than proposed by the applicant and will be difficult, if not impossible, to mitigate.

Negative impacts on the neighborhood and lower property values are likely to occur and can't be mitigated by the developer.

The Freedom Area Mini Plan (to guide growth in the area) did not support or contemplate an intensive retail establishment on this site. The plan calls for light industrial uses in this section of the Freedom area.

Yates, the commissioners' liaison to the planning panel, cast the deciding vote July 14 to go forward with the appeal and he did so again yesterday.

The cost of pursuing the case "is probably more like $8,500," but is still "not an exorbitant amount," Yates said yesterday.

"I am willing to vote to allow the decision to go to court to find out which way it will go," he said.

Questions about traffic

Yates sent a questionnaire to constituents in the Eldersburg area, soliciting their opinions about the case.

"Most were not against Promenade," he said. "The question most had was about traffic."

The developer's plans to spend $800,000 to improve the Route 26-Route 32 intersection will have little effect, opponents said. The intersection is expected to fall below the state's minimum guidelines for a crossroads by 2000, even if no new development occurs in the area.

Eldersburg resident Donna Slack, who has led opposition to the Promenade and was present for yesterday's vote, said the commissioners "made the right decision."

The shopping center proposal "never should have gotten this far the first place," she said. "It should have been rejected at the BZA [Board of Zoning Appeals] level."

If the vote had gone the other way, "We would have been hurting," she said. "We can do stuff with landscaping -- and we are -- but we can't do anything to improve the roads."

Pub Date: 7/31/98

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