Limitations on waivers considered

Council members surprised Owens didn't block permission

Moratorium `drastic'

Koch Homes excused in '98 from rebuilding part of Riva Road

February 11, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Members of the Anne Arundel County Council are exploring whether the council should strip County Executive Janet S. Owens of the power to grant waivers to developers.

The discussion comes amid reports that Koch Homes, a major developer in Anne Arundel, received clearance to build an 18-house subdivision in violation of county ordinance.

Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr. said imposing a moratorium on waivers would be "drastic" and that he would have to see evidence that developers routinely receive improper permission to build.

But Klosterman said rules governing development exist for a reason -- "to protect the environment and make sure everybody is treated equally and everything is done right."

"If those rules and regulations promulgated by the County Council have been violated, we have a problem," he said.

Klosterman, a Democrat from Millersville, said he has spoken to Councilwomen Shirley Murphy and Barbara D. Samorajczyk, both Democrats, about a moratorium.

Council members expressed surprise that Owens -- a Democrat who ousted John G. Gary in 1998 with her "clean government" campaign -- knew about the improper waiver but did not try to block the development.

"She talked the talk, but didn't walk the walk," said John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican, although he added that he didn't have all the facts.

Owens, attending the funeral of a slain Baltimore County police officer yesterday, was unavailable for comment. Her spokesman declined to respond to council members' comments.

The waiver in question excused Koch Homes from rebuilding a half-mile stretch of Riva Road that the county considers unacceptable. Steven R. Cover, the former head of Planning and Code Enforcement, noted the high cost of rebuilding in granting the waiver in December 1998.

In May, Deputy County Attorney David A. Plymyer wrote in a memo that county ordinance specifically forbids the granting of waivers for "financial considerations." His memo was forwarded to Owens that month.

Two months later, the county began issuing building permits for Windswept, whose 18 houses cost an average of $400,000, according to developer Gary Koch. Thirteen of the houses are under construction.

County spokesman John Morris said Wednesday that the project was allowed to go forward for two reasons: Cover followed a "long-standing policy" of granting waivers, and the process was too far along to stop it. Morris said the county plans to improve Riva Road, though no money has been earmarked for construction.

Samorajczyk said the county should freeze work on Windswept, not only because of the road waiver but because the subdivision is feeding storm water into a pond declared a hazard by the state.

"When the administration changed, I thought we would have strict enforcement of our code requirements," Samorajczyk said. "What is it going to take for us to comply with the law?"

The Maryland Department of Environment informed the county in September that the 2.5-acre pond, owned by the 525-unit Riva Trace subdivision, posed a "significant hazard" and urged the county to require repairs.

Among the problems mentioned were a leaking pipe and the presence of trees on the earthen dam. Tree roots can cause water to seep through the dam, the letter said, and trees could topple in a storm and create an opening.

"I have young children," said Dan Semick, who lives downstream on Cape St. John Road, close to the South River. "If this thing breaks, I don't know what's going to happen."

Brad Iarossi, who heads the state's Dam Safety Division, said in an interview that a breach would not jeopardize lives. He said models show that if the dam gave way during the "largest storm imaginable," rushing water could move a car off the road, but the nearest house "would not get wet at all."

Iarossi estimated the cost of the repairs at about $20,000. A formal violation will be issued soon to Riva Trace, he said.

"Truthfully, I think the whole thing is a little bit blown out of proportion," Iarossi said. "We need to get these things fixed, and I think a fix is easy to do. The only question is who is going to pay?"

Koch said he is willing to help. Robinson Binau, president of the Riva Trace homeowners association, said residents there will contribute as well. But Binau he also wants assistance from the county or state.

Binau blames the county for not making sure the dam was checked against designs after it was built in the mid-1980s. He also says the county should have required the pond's conversion from a sediment-collecting construction pond to one designed for storm water.

"We'll do what we have to do, but it's not our fault," Binau said.

As work continues on Windswept, another developer is seeking county approval to build 29 houses between Riva Trace and Cape St. John. One idea being considered is to funnel more storm water into the Riva Trace Pond.

That has Samorajczyk worried.

"We don't even know if it has the capacity to add to," she said. "I don't think it does."

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