County development and conspiracy theories

Comment

April 04, 1999|By Brian Sullam

CONSPIRACIES ARE often convenient vehicles for explaining events that seem to defy conventional explanation.

During the 1973 Arab oil embargo, for example, many Americans believed that large oil companies had colluded to create the worst economic crisis since World War II. Many believed oil tankers were anchored off the coasts merely waiting for gasoline prices to rise before unloading their shipments. Even though news reports debunked that notion, many clung to the belief nonetheless.

In Anne Arundel County, we've reached a similar point regarding development.

Defying simple explanation

Collusion between developers and county officials is responsible for the wave of residential and commercial construction that has swept the county the past several years.

It must be. Anne Arundel's boom couldn't result from a less nefarious explanation -- that the county is well-positioned between Washington, Baltimore, the Chesapeake Bay and includes the state's major airport, too. That rationale is too simple for many.

In recent weeks, a number of articles have appeared in this newspaper indicating that the county government manipulated its capital improvements budget to enable a developer to obtain zoning for more intensive use of its 36 acres on Bestgate Road across from Annapolis Mall in Parole.

The developer of this parcel, known as the Brilliant property, includes members of the Chaney family (which owns and operates a concrete plant nearby) and Robert Agee, a former county official and county executive candidate.

They wanted to develop a mixed-use project, with stores, a movie theater, offices, apartments and townhouses. Commercial zoning was needed for the project.

The county Ethics Commission and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are exploring whether the principles behind this development known as Annapolis Marketplace used improper influence to get the county to study realigning Medical Parkway. Their motivation: to bolster their petition to change zoning on the property from residential to more lucrative commercial status.

What's not in doubt

No one doubts that the language on the Medical Parkway alignment was changed in the capital budget.

In the fiscal 1998 budget, the alignment would have extended Medical Parkway to meet Bestgate Road where it intersects with Severn Bridge Road.

A year later, the alignment to be studied also included a route that would bring Medical Parkway close to the Annapolis Mall and Commerce Park Drive.

This alignment would also intersect Medical Parkway with Bestgate Road across from the Brilliant property. (The language in the budget is ambiguous about whether there would be one or two connections to Bestgate Road.)

For those who believe in conspiracies, this proposed revision in the alignment smells bad, particularly its timing.

Suspicious timing

Indeed, shortly after the change in the capital budget language, the Annapolis Marketplace developer appeared before county hearing officer Stephen M. Legendre.

Those who see dirty tricks afoot believe that the change strengthened the developers' petition for a zoning change on two important criteria: that public services would be adequate to accommodate a commercial use and that the character of the historically residential neighborhood was changing.

The county Planning Department favored the reclassification, specifically mentioning that the Medical Parkway would intersect with Bestgate Road across from the Brilliant property.

Request denied

But a funny thing happened on the way to the conspiracy: Mr. Legendre denied the request and upheld the original zoning.

On top of that, the county public works department last fall completed its study of Medical Parkway options.

It concluded that a second road to Commerce Park Drive and Bestgate Road would adversely impact the natural surroundings. As a result, the Medical Parkway alignment was returned to its original route.

Annapolis Marketplace is continuing to seek rezoning in spite of the setbacks.

Two weeks ago, the project appeared before the county Board of Appeals, seeking a reversal of Mr. Legendre's ruling.

Funny timing?

Talk about funny timing: news reports about the Ethics Commission and FBI investigations appeared just as the developers were appearing before the Board of Appeals.

If there was a conspiracy to rezone the Brilliant property, it has been a flop so far.

But that's just a minor detail to those who believe the area's development boom has less to do with a bullish economy than with scheming between officials and developers.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 4/04/99

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