Builder's variance request is fought

Residents oppose two-house proposal for merged lot

Manhattan Beach

April 04, 2001|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Thomas McGrath Jr. doesn't want to wake up every morning and gaze into his next-door neighbor's window from his waterfront property in Manhattan Beach.

But he's afraid that will happen if Severn Associates builds the two houses it is proposing for the small, narrow property that now holds one house near McGrath's home in the Severna Park neighborhood.

McGrath and other residents have been lobbying against the Crownsville company's plans. They maintain that the land at 759 Dividing Road had been used for years as a single merged lot - with a small red house on one half, a shed on the half that's closest to McGrath and a single driveway - and should continue to have one house on it.

They worry that the two proposed houses - the red one would be torn down - would lead to crowding in the historic neighborhood and send property values plummeting.

"We're not against development," McGrath said. "What we're against is irresponsible development."

The neighbors will continue their battle at a county administrative hearing tomorrow as Severn Associates applies for a zoning variance for the half of the land with the house on it. The company wants to tear down the red house and build a house 26 feet wide, 6 feet more than allowed under current regulations.

"It doesn't affect [McGrath] at all. We're just adding a foot or two to bring it down to the minimum to construct a reasonably configured house," said Michael Helfrich, president of Gamma Engineering in Annapolis, speaking on behalf of Severn Associates. "A 20-foot-wide house has aesthetic and room-layout hardships."

McGrath has fought every development proposal for the land brought by Severn Associates. All issues have involved only the half of the land closest to his home, the half on which there is no house.

The fate of the lot went before the county Board of Appeals last month when McGrath appealed the county's decision that the construction of Severn Associates' proposed second house - a 21-by-40-foot, two-story home - did not impair the air, light and view of the owner of adjacent properties.

McGrath said Severn Associates should not be allowed to build the home on the half-lot closest to him. He maintained the half-lot is illegal because it's part of a merged lot, qualifying for only one house. The board has yet to rule.

"I know their opposition is well-intentioned," said Anthony Christhilf, a lawyer representing the president of Severn Associates, Steve Washington. "But I don't think that the basis they're using is a legitimate one."

The Manhattan Beach Civic Association and the Greater Severna Park Council oppose the construction proposed by Severn Associates, which bought the entire lot for $312,000 in February 2000. About 50 signatures have been gathered on a petition opposing the company's plans.

"It's essentially taking the community that is developed and suddenly carving it up into tiny little lots," said Albert Johnston, head of the Greater Severna Park Council's planning and zoning committee. "That cheapens the value of every other house around where this goes on."

Helfrich said such concern is unnecessary and unfair. "It is one of the most exaggerated cases of the `not in my back yard' - in this case `not in my side yard' - syndrome," he said. "It's a reasonable lot, equivalent to everyone else's."

The Manhattan Beach community was established in the 1920s as a seasonal area for waterfront beach homes. It has since become a year-round residential area, with homeowners merging two lots to accommodate full-scale houses, said William Sullivan, president of the Manhattan Beach Civic Association. Sixty-three waterfront lots, more than half of those in the community, are merged lots, he said.

Residents say that's how the property in question had been used. In the spring of 2000, a county administrative hearing officer denied an application for a variance to build a larger house on the half of the land closest to McGrath's home. That house would have been closer to its neighbors than is currently allowed. The hearing officer decided that the two lots appeared to be one building site.

Severn Associates appealed the decision, and a hearing was scheduled for December. Before that, however, the county opened the door for Severn Associates to get a building permit for that half of the land closest to McGrath's home because the county Office of Law changed its position on what constitutes a merged lot.

The new legal opinion concluded that homeowners were permitted to use two lots as a single lot for building purposes - but homeowners could not permanently merge the lots.

McGrath and other residents were outraged that the decision was made before the December hearing and also that the opinion ruled against permanently merging the lots.

They said the decision was made "behind closed doors" and without a public hearing. That led the residents to appeal the county's air, light and view standard.

"We were totally and utterly taken by surprise," Sullivan said.

County spokesman John A. Morris said the Office of Law had done more research, not specifically for this case, that led to the new opinion. Information was provided at the December variance hearing, he said, and public hearings are not held for building permits.

With building permit in hand, Severn Associates still pursued the appeal for the variance during the December hearing but was denied.

Tomorrow, the process will start from the beginning with the lot that has the house on it. That meeting is scheduled for 10:45 a.m. in the Arundel Center in Annapolis. McGrath vows to continue challenging the development every step of the way.

"I will follow this like a hound from hell," he said. "I will never give up."

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