Panel reviews testimony to advise housing chief on boatel apartments

Fire danger a key concern of the Canton opponents to half-finished complex

January 26, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

A review panel will make a recommendation to Baltimore's housing director in the next two weeks that will affect the fate of a disputed apartment complex under construction on the waterfront in Canton.

The panel could advise housing chief M. J. "Jay" Brodie to allow the Lighthouse Landing project to continue, ask him to stop construction or push him to appoint an outside body to review the case.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore panel's decision will be based largely on testimony from an appeal hearing on Monday forced by opponents of the three-story, 80-unit complex being built atop a 50-foot boat storage facility in the 2700 block of Boston St.

Dennis Taylor, the housing official heading the five-person panel, said he planned to have a recommendation to Brodie in two weeks. He would not speculate on what the panel will advise.

"Right now, we're just going over all of the housing and fire codes and all of the testimony and we'll make our decision based on that," Taylor said.

Half the construction is completed because housing officials approved a building permit for it March 2. The approval occurred after a two-year review process involving the housing and fire departments, local political leadership and the community.

The most ardent critics of the project appealed the decision 10 days after it was made public, arguing that the city should never have granted the project residential zoning status.

The Southeast Baltimore residents said the so-called "boatel" should have been given the same zoning classification as a hazardous industrial building. They argued that the boat storage, with enough room for 200 vessels, would hold a mix of fuel, fumes, boat flares and other flammable material that might explode.

A hazardous zoning classification would have kept developerDr. Selvin Passen, head of the East Harbor Marine Center, from building the apartments above the boat storage.

"We are not asking necessarily that this thing be stopped in its tracks," Milton Bates, an opponent, said at the hearing. He said he hoped the city would require replacing the boat storage with parking lots or more apartments.

At Monday's hearing, opponents of the complex released documents they received from the city -- some obtained using Freedom of Information Act queries.

Among them was a September 1997 memo signed by Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. saying the Fire Department "does not recommend" the apartment construction. In the memo, Williams also stated a concern that if there was a fire that caused a sprinkler failure, his firefighters would not likely be able to get to the inhabitants. He wrote that the results "would be catastrophic."

Fire Inspector John Carr testified Monday that he prepared the Williams memo after looking into the project. He said that it has always been his opinion that the project should have a hazardous zoning classification.

Carr's recommendations were overruled by Daniel P. Henson III, then head of the Housing Authority, when he issued the building permit.

Carr pointed out that the Fire Department has worked closely with Passen on the project and that the building is designed to exceed the minimum fire prevention requirements for industrial structures given a hazardous designation. Ventilation and sprinkler systems are being installed, as well as special insulation and panels that would direct any potential explosion away from the sprinklers.

Opponents of the development derided city officials for not allowing a public appeal until nearly a year after the building permit was issued.

Shawn S. Karimian, director of the Department of Construction and Building Inspection, said Monday he misunderstood exactly when the permit was issued and then thought Passen's opponents had not filed their appeal request in proper time. Karimian did not write to them explaining his decision to ban their appeal until three months later, in June.

On Monday the activists were joined by the Southeast Community Organization, whose board voted last week to side with them.

"People's lives are at stake here," said SECO director Ken Strong, who argued that the city should appoint an independent panel to review the building permit and how the city reached its zoning decision.

Passen did not attend Monday's hearing, but afterward said that he welcomed any review of the project, noting that "it comes with the territory."

He also touted his building's safety. "I dare say that Lighthouse is the most fire-safe building in all of Baltimore right now," he said.

Passen's legal team said Monday the developer has spent more than $5 million on construction.

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