A stream of persistence

Activist: Lynne Bergling battled four years to get an illegal parking lot removed from the banks of the Little Plumtree in Ellicott City.

March 21, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

In Howard County, where development seems inevitable, parking lots cover fields like dandelions in the spring.

But sometimes, nature and persistence triumph over pavement.

Consider, for instance, the 5,000-square-foot parking lot that sat until recently behind a Jiffy Lube off U.S. 40 in Ellicott City, with trees and the Little Plumtree stream as a backdrop.

Last week, after a four-year struggle that ended with a court order, backhoes erased it from the face of the earth.

For people who understand how development rules work, it was an extraordinary moment. Most zoning violations are unseen, moved or made legal after the fact, experts agree.

"Everybody said it would never happen," said Ellicott City resident Lynne Bergling, 42, who fought to get rid of the lot because it was in a stream buffer. "Everyone said ... `A court will not make someone tear out something they already built.'

"I am absolutely amazed."

Bergling lives a stroll away and pays attention to the stream. When residents suspected that sewage was seeping into the main Plumtree branch, it was she - not county employees - who found the leaky manhole and blocked the pipe at fault.

And when V & P Associates paved a gravel parking lot 21 feet from the Little Plumtree in 1998, Bergling wondered angrily: "Who's allowing this?"

No one, it turned out.

Four years earlier, the county Department of Planning and Zoning had notified the owners that they had violated numerous regulations by constructing a gravel lot on residentially zoned property, without permits and within the 75-foot stream buffer.

Raju Varghese contends that his company did not create the parking lot. He said the gravel was there when he and his partner bought the land about 15 years ago as V & P Associates, and he believes the county should have allowed parking to continue under the rules for "nonconforming uses."

Varghese said he cannot do anything else with the now-empty 20,848-square-foot parcel, which he subdivided from a larger piece of land, but the taxes have to be paid.

"It's a little parking lot," added his attorney, Michael E. Henderson. "It's not the most heinous thing there is. There are violations all up and down the road."

But Howard County zoning enforcers investigate only when they get written complaints. After V & P Associates put down blacktop, Bergling complained - and then stuck with the case through four years of twists and turns.

She argued against an administrative adjustment to the land's zoning, which the county granted. Next she appealed to the Zoning Board and won. Then she made sure the county filed for relief with District Court to get the pavement out.

In November, Judge Alice P. Clark gave V & P Associates 120 days to lose the lot. A day before the deadline, just as Bergling was preparing for a contempt of court case, the backhoes rolled in.

"It can happen if you stick with it - unfortunately, you have to stick with it," she said.

Through it all, she never hired an attorney. She taught herself land-use law as she went along. "I'd stay up all night reading zoning regulations," said Bergling, who is running for County Council.

Howard County Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. can think of only one other example of zoning violations causing the downfall of a permanent structure - again a parking lot, though only part of it had to go and the courts were not involved.

Of the 200 to 250 possible zoning violations the county investigates each year, few ever get to District Court.

The American Planning Association in Chicago does not track parking lots, but researchers know it is very rare for developers to be required to bulldoze buildings because of zoning violations. Still, they note, landowners run a big risk by constructing without permission.

"If you don't get a permit or at least ask whether a permit is necessary, you really are in a difficult situation," said Stuart Meck, a senior researcher with the association.

Henderson had hoped to negotiate a "less onerous" finale with the county. His clients would have preferred to put up a barrier and stop using the lot instead of paying $6,000 or so to tear it out, he said.

But Bergling cannot see how that would have fixed the problem, since pavement would still be in the stream buffer.

Between 1985, when she moved in, and 1998, the Little Plumtree flooded onto North Chatham Road once, she said. In the two months after the pavement was laid, the road had flooded at least three times, stranding cars, she said. A heavy rain is all it takes.

George Beisser, a county planning official who oversees zoning enforcement, agreed that a parking lot built too close to a stream and without storm-water management can easily wash out surrounding land.

But Henderson said the narrow culvert under the road is the problem, not his clients. Besides, he added, the entire U.S. 40 corridor is one wide swath of asphalt and concrete.

"It's ludicrous to suggest that a 5,000-square-foot pavement causes that creek to overflow," he said.

In any case, it is a bad idea to build in stream buffers, said Dennis Luck, chairman of the Howard County chapter of the Sierra Club. The green space absorbs rain speeding toward streams, he said. It cools runoff, preventing stream water temperatures from rising and killing fish.

He's delighted that V & P Associates had to take the parking lot out.

"They should be penalized for what they did," Luck said.

Bergling wishes it had not taken so long for the lot to go because the county knew about it for eight years.

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