Historic District in defining debate

Townhouse proposal may depend on how court defines `act'

July 28, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Some believe the future character of Ellicott City's Historic District has come down, with apologies to President Clinton, to what the meaning of "act" is.

If "act" means one thing, 27 townhouses could be built off Fels Lane in Ellicott City, a stone's throw from Main Street with its historic buildings and the ever-present smell of eucalyptus. If "act" means another, those 27 townhouses will never exist other than on one hopeful developer's blueprints.

Yesterday, Howard County Circuit Judge James B. Dudley listened to two lawyers argue for an hour the legal meaning of the verb "act" as it is used in a statute governing the activities of the county's Historic District Commission.

One lawyer, Thomas M. Meachum, was arguing on behalf of developer Michael Pfau, who wants to build 27 townhouses on a 7-acre site across from the Roger Carter Center. The other, Thomas P. Carbo, was arguing on behalf of the commission, which voted in November to deny Pfau's proposed development so close to Main Street with its picturesque storefronts and specialty shops.

The commission had the power to reject Pfau's plan, but here's the rub: By law, it had to "act" within 45 days of the last hearing, which took place Nov. 5, or its silence would constitute approval. While commission members did vote within that time period -- on Nov. 23 -- they did not submit a written denial until Dec. 30, nine days after the 45-day deadline.

Carbo argues that to "act," in the county statute that governs the Historic District Commission, means to vote, and that therefore the commission acted in time.

Meachum argues that to "act," in that document, means to submit a written document, and that the commission approved the development by default.

Dudley seemed disgusted, at times a little amused, by the debate, which harked back to President Clinton's famous statement in response to an accusatory question during the Monica Lewinsky hearings: "It depends on what the meaning of the word `is' is."

Dudley blamed those responsible for the vague wording of the Howard County statute, which he deemed "a hodgepodge of confusion" and "having nothing in either brevity or clarity."

"You couldn't get three lawyers in the world to agree on what `to act' means," he said.

Appeals possible

Depending on what Dudley decides, either side could take the case to the Court of Special Appeals, Carbo said. Meachum, however, said the Historic District Commission does not have the right to appeal. Both back up their points of view with complicated legal arguments.

During the hearing, no more than passing mention was made of the 27 proposed townhouses, which hovered above the debate like so many ghosts.

Impact on ambience

At the working session in November, commission member Janice Menear said the 27 townhouses "would have impact on the visual and overall ambience of Ellicott City."

Commission member Robert B. Williams called it a "cookie-cutter" operation, and member Richard Taylor called it a "Columbia-style development."

"That's really not what `old town' is meant to be," said commission member Charles E. Hogg.

The commission members worried about the development's decks being visible from Main Street and said the facade of the townhouses would be too uniform.

Only the meaning

They also worried that Pfau's proposed building materials -- which include vinyl shutters and steel doors -- would not mesh with Main Street's more historic wood and brick.

None of that mattered yesterday. All that mattered was the meaning of "act," a pesky word, legally speaking, with a number of definitions: to build, to sue, to appeal, to debate, to define.

Dudley at one point chastised Carbo, using the same offending verb that monopolized yesterday's courtroom hearing.

"If the commission had acted five days sooner," he said, "they wouldn't have had this problem."

Pub Date: 7/28/99

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