Planning Board approves development in Ellicott City

Opponents promise to continue their fight against Pfau project

January 12, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Planning Board unanimously approved developer Michael L. Pfau's hotly contested proposal for houses in historic Ellicott City yesterday, a week after his other project for the area got a thumbs up.

The subdivision Woods of Park Place calls for 15 houses on 6 acres at Church Road and Park Drive, surrounded by 9 acres of woods. Zoning regulations permit up to 20 houses on the site.

Residents oppose the development, arguing that it would be out of place in a neighborhood with an average lot size of more than 2.3 acres.

But board members said Pfau met their criteria. They called the proposal an improvement over his earlier plan for 18 houses, on which they deadlocked in September.

"I think it's a good plan," said board member Florenzia W. Davis. "I understand the community's objection, and I can feel your pain - but under the current regulations, what we have to make our decision on, I don't see how I can deny it."

The board's approval came with one caveat: Members want to see the site development plans for each lot before anything is built.

Pfau came into the proceedings fresh off another win. Last week, the Historic District Commission approved his proposal for an office complex on nearby Fels Lane, several years after he applied to build there. "This has probably been the best week in my life," he joked after yesterday's vote. "I'm elated."

But residents promised a continued fight. Richard Bright, who gave the opposition's closing argument yesterday, said the group would appeal to the county Board of Appeals. He said he believes the Planning Board ignored some of its criteria and administrative rules.

"We just lost this battle," Bright said. "The war is still on."

Pfau and the residents had butted heads over his office plan, too, but they worked out a compromise recently.

Gary Segal, president of the Patapsco Heights-Church Road Association, also talked with Pfau about compromising on the Woods of Park Place. That seemed a more difficult proposition.

Residents have repeatedly said that only four houses should be built. But Pfau, who first asked for 21 houses, said he has compromised more than most developers would. "You give up 25 percent of your density, that's a huge compromise," he said.

Final statements before the board yesterday showed the chasm between the two sides. Project engineer Robert Vogel said that it is not fair to compare the lot sizes of existing homes to the Woods of Park Place's lot sizes because zoning laws require him to cluster the houses to limit the disturbance to the environment.

Residents countered that 15 new houses would flood their neighborhood with what historic preservationists call "noncontributing structures" - modern houses that don't add to the historic district's character. The neighborhood has seven noncontributing buildings and 27 historic homes, Bright said.

"The Woods at Park Place is incompatible," he said. "... It degrades the entire meaning of a historic district."

But in his closing argument, Pfau's attorney, David Carney, said the character of the historic district isn't an issue for the board to consider. "This case is a subdivision case," he said. "It is not about, per se, the quality of the historic district, what the historic district is - it's about subdivisions.

"We think 15 is the right number of lots," he added.

To build, Pfau also needs the consent of the Historic District Commission, which considers whether proposals meet the additional regulations for historic Ellicott City.

Asked by the Planning Board for comments on the Woods of Park Place, the commission recommended that it be turned down.

But an opinion last year from the county Office of Law states that the commission does not have the authority to reject Pfau's plans based on "subdivision criteria" such as lot size or the number of houses. Instead, the commission must focus on issues such as architecture and landscaping, county solicitors wrote.

Bright said he intends to challenge that interpretation.

Even without appeals to contend with, Pfau has to wait before he can build. The county has a limited number of housing allocations for Ellicott City, and others are in line before him.

Pfau estimated that the soonest he could begin construction is in two years.

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