Starting over at Maple Farms?


June 25, 2000|By C. Fraser Smith

AFTER 32 public hearings, you might think the last word had been uttered on the subject of Maple Lawn Farms, the mega-development slated for the Iager Farm in Fulton.

You'd be wrong.

If you're an opponent of the project, you'd like to think what we have is the first word. The first word on a whole new approach.

If you want the project to proceed, then, yes, it could be the last word because the new proposal might look like a poison pill.

Two members of the County Council, sitting as a zoning board, have proposed that no work be done on the big development until various road projects are completed.

Allan Kittleman and Chris Merdon, the council's two Republican members, offered the proposal last Monday evening at a zoning board work session.

The requirement they propose could take years, you think. It could, of course. The road can't be started until money has been committed by the state or county or some other source. When is that likely? Maybe next year? No one really knows.

If that doesn't kill the project first, the sponsors of this new proposal want to scale it way back. Instead of 1,168 housing units, there would be 1,016. The apartments would be reduced from 236 to 156; townhouses from 437 to 413; and single family homes from 495 to 451.

Density would be reduced from 2.3 units per acre to 2.

"They've figured out five ways to kill the project. Any one of them will do it," says an informed party close to the developer, Stewart Greenebaum.

This source says the project is being derailed by fear of change, NIMBYism, political grandstanding and the usual process of downsizing developments run amok.

Those who object to the Greenebaum proposal are, of course, delighted.

When the new idea was unveiled last week, they could barely contain their glee.

"I felt like our testimony was falling on deaf ears," said Pat DiCarlo, who attended almost all the hearings. "But I'm heartened by what is happening now."

Fair enough. The opponents have fought long and hard at some considerable expense. If they register a win or even the appearance of a win, they may well be euphoric.

But that feeling could be short-lived.

There is no certainty that the Kittleman-Merdon proposal has a majority of the council/zoning board's support. It should not have. If the proposal were to make the county vulnerable to a lawsuit, it might not even have the support of its sponsors.

They can't comment because they are members of the board and cannot, by law, get involved in discussion of matters they will have to vote on.

But this intervention must be rejected -- even if the council/zoning board wants eventually to kill the Greenebaum proposal. Why would any developer ever come into Howard again if he or she could be blindsided in this way after 32 hearings and months of expensive planning?

What has been proposed here seems patently unfair if not illegal -- a suspicion that some have raised already.

Here's why the legality issue arises: If government poses obstacles that make a piece of land unusable it has made a "taking" -- it has put the property out of reach for development.

Those who take a calm view of what happened last week at the zoning board suggest it's just a part of the always agonizing process -- even if a bit more dramatic. Proposals such as this one are almost always pared and reshaped.

No one with a vote, not even the new proposal's authors, have suggested killing the project outright. They might want to -- and their proposal might have that purpose -- but they are obliged to be neutral judges.

Surely they are.

Their opponents say they are simply grandstanding, making a statement for no-growth to opponents who need a friend in court. The proposal's authors decline to comment, again, because they are required to say nothing about a zoning matter under active consideration.

The board will now turn to consideration of traffic congestion. It must weigh and balance the expert views of witnesses testifying for the opponents and the developer. One side says Maple Lawn Farms will create the mother of all traffic jams. The other says you could have a picnic there at rush hour with no threat to life, limb or potato salad.

The developer suggests that his concept could actually reduce traffic -- because so many of the residents will work at new companies locating on the site.

Such a concept will be laughed out of the ballpark, of course.

"Nobody cares if a developer is treated well or not," said one of the developer's advocates.

The developer has not commented on the new proposal, but he will almost certainly say he can't proceed if the paring is as deep as now proposed.

The whole concept of a high-density, Smart Growth development where people can walk to work and school will be defeated, he is likely to say.

The council has to care, of course, and presumably has not gone through the tortuous process of the last year or so with anything but faith that a good result can be achieved for all the parties.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard ounty.

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