Arundel panel sees no ethics violation

But road move without input frowned upon

November 09, 1999|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County Ethics Commission has found no violation of county ethics laws by a former top administrative official when he helped realign a proposed road in a way that could have aided a developer's quest for a major zoning change.

In a ruling made public yesterday, the commission said that county officials "deviated from the usual county procedures" in attempting to move the road without public input or oversight, but found no wrongdoing on the part of Thomas C. Andrews -- then administrative officer, and now the county's land-use officer.

Sources familiar with the proceedings said that Andrews was the central figure in the investigation.

The commission, in a report that identified him by title but not name, said Andrews and other county officials "contributed to the appearance of impropriety" in the way they handled the proposed road change by failing to present it to either the Planning Advisory Board or the County Council.

"The fact that the public was not involved in this realignment raised serious questions," said Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis Democrat who fought the developers' initial request for a zoning change for their Annapolis Marketplace project.

"One of the things that this brings out is how important the process is, because that process builds a consensus with the community and the county," the councilwoman said. "When the process is not followed, the perceptions raised can be very damaging."

Andrews, who did not return phone calls, announced his resignation last week to accept a job as the county manager in Fulton County, Ga. His last day of work will be Nov. 17.

At issue in the ethics report was how county officials changed the planned route of Medical Boulevard near Annapolis Mall in May 1998 so that it would lead directly into the site of the proposed multimillion-dollar complex of shopping and apartments.

The report criticized county officials, none of whom was named in the commission's findings, for attempting to change the destination of the boulevard from Severn Grove Road to connect instead with Commerce Park Drive by altering the county budget rather than going through public channels in the land-use office.

After the road's destination was altered, the developers -- Frank Chaney and two others who have since left the project -- argued that their 60-acre property just north of Bestgate Road should be rezoned from residential to commercial to match the commercial nature of the soon-to-be extended Medical Boulevard.

Their initial efforts failed -- the zoning change was turned down in July 1998, and the road realignment was stripped from the budget by County Executive Janet S. Owens in January, shortly after she took office.

Yesterday, Steuart Chaney, the developer's cousin who says he became active in the project eight months ago, said he hoped the commission's findings would lift the last cloud of suspicion from Annapolis Marketplace, which is winning favor in the community.

In the continuing ups-and-downs of the project, Samorajczyk pushed legislation through the County Council early this year to ensure that the developers' property remains residential -- as stipulated in the long-developed "Parole Plan."

But the Chaneys won a key victory in April when the Board of Appeals agreed to allow commercial zoning for the site. Area residents vowed to fight that decision in Circuit Court.

Since then, however, the developers have changed tactics -- arranging community meetings in September to find out what the neighbors wanted. Residents now say they are about to reach an agreement -- and are even a little excited about the project -- and Samorajczyk says she will go along with what her constituents want.

"When the road was changed like that to help the original developers," said residents' activist Donald J. Yeskey, "it cost us a lot in legal fees, and we had no idea who in the county was supporting the change and who had ordered it. Those kinds of decisions are never in the public's best interest. Hopefully that will never happen again."

"Development needs to be done out in the open," said Steuart Chaney. "When I first joined the project there was a lot of negative, a lot of suspicion. Since then, I'd say there has been a 180-degree turn, from total distrust to complete trust, and the commission's findings are just another milestone in that process."

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