Approval of houses angers residents

Taylor development vote spurs criticism of planning panel

`Head in the sand'

June 18, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Shelley Wygant sees the Howard County Planning Board as a shepherd that needs to keep a sharp eye on its sheep -- the last plots of undeveloped land in the county -- before they get eaten up by the big bad wolf of development.

And in her book, the board has fallen asleep on the job, especially after it voted 4-1 yesterday to approve 178 new homes along College Avenue, a designated scenic road near Ellicott City's historic Main Street. The vote was especially significant because the proposed development, called Autumn View V, is one of several major projects planned for Ellicott City's largest swath of undeveloped land -- about 400 acres of fields, streams and woodlands.

Wygant begged the board to be "the good shepherd" and vote against Autumn View V. She and other residents worry that this project -- along with the others -- will ruin the charm of Ellicott City's historic district and the town's many scenic roads. But board members say they can't take those factors into account when making their decisions and the owners have the right to develop their land. It has become an all-too-familiar back-and-forth between residents and developers in the historic town. But in this case, the dispute takes on added significance because the property is so big and so close to historic Ellicott

City.

"The historic district of Ellicott City is one of the county's biggest resources," Wygant said. "Keeping that accessible and appealing is to everybody's good."

The property is owned by Dr. Bruce Taylor, medical director and chief executive officer of Taylor Manor Hospital in Ellicott City, and his family. Over the next 10 to 20 years, they plan to build more than 600 additional homes on the property.

`Break my heart'

Neighbors like Wygant don't even want to think about how that will affect their now-quiet neighborhoods, surrounded by a network of hilly, scenic roads.

"Every time I go to the Giant, I'm going to look at it, and I don't want it to break my heart," said Wygant, chairwoman of a community association that encompasses about 275 homes on College Avenue, New Cut Road, Bonnie Branch Road and Beachwood Road.

Russell Strough, vice chairman of the association, said he and other community members aren't ready to give up. He said they will look into appealing the Planning Board's decision to the county Board of Appeals and then Circuit Court.

If history repeats itself, they won't get far.

That's the route Strough and other neighbors took with Autumn View III, adjacent to Autumn View V off Bonnie Branch Road in Ellicott City. They appealed the Planning Board's approval of Autumn View III to the county Board of Appeals, then to Circuit Court and then to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. They lost all of the appeals, including the last in April. Ronald L. Spahn, lawyer for the Taylor family, said Strough and the others argued mostly about the danger of putting more cars on winding College Avenue. But Spahn said the Planning Board cannot legally make its decisions based on traffic.

Nevertheless, traffic concerns led Planning Board member Gary Kaufman to cast the lone dissenting vote yesterday.

"I don't think I have been convinced personally how all the traffic is going to get out of there," he said.

Joan Lancos said that worried her, too. But she didn't let it sway her vote: "We're approving it because it meets the criteria and they have the right to develop," she said.

That angered Norman Powell, a resident of College Avenue who objects to the project.

"Our precious Department of Planning and Zoning is basically sticking their head in the sand," he said. "I consider that to be irresponsible and negligent."

Some residents have expressed dismay that the Taylors have developed their large property bit by bit rather than presenting the plans all at once. They wonder if, somehow, the outcome would have been different if the Planning Board could have seen plans for more than 600 houses and townhouses all at once.

About two weeks ago, the Planning Board approved a housing project called Worthington Fields, which paves the way for 144 homes on 88 acres off scenic New Cut Road.

Last fall, the Planning Board approved the Autumn River development, which calls for 82 single-family homes and 17 townhouses off College Avenue. The state Department of Natural Resources expressed some interest in adding the parcel to the Patapsco Valley State Park, but residents are still organizing.

Construction of some of Autumn View III's 72 homes will begin this summer, said Donald L. Reuwer, president of Land Design and Development Inc. in Columbia and the project manager for many of the Taylor projects.

Autumn View IV, which will come before the Planning Board next month, could add more than 100 additional homes.

Powell criticized the "piecemeal development process."

"We're allowing development to proceed here which clearly is going to overwhelm the system," he said. "Somehow this needs to be corrected. These things keep happening."

`Steward of the land'

Reuwer yesterday defended the Taylor family against Wygant's accusation that they are too eager to make a profit.

"It's hard not to get mad sometimes when you sit here and listen to the stuff that people say," he said. He said the Taylor family has been a "foundation" in Ellicott City for a long time and that Bruce Taylor has been "a steward of the land for ages."

But Wygant still doesn't like to see the forest surrounding her home fall prey to sprawl.

"These public hearings seem like a public hearing," she said. "We come and hear what's going to happen to our neighborhood."

Pub Date: 6/18/99

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