Fighting to have it both ways

Parcel: Howard County's comprehensive plan seeks to make property and zoning lines match, but for one woman, loss of dual residential and commercial status will mean a loss of value, too.

March 25, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Mildred Disney Gallis hasn't done much with her acre of commercial land except pay the property taxes, but just knowing it exists has given her peace of mind for decades. It's her sole retirement plan -- she has no pension or 401(k).

Now its commercial zoning is in danger of disappearing, and her peace of mind with it.

Howard County planners have recommended a change in the heart of her rural town of Highland because zoning lines and property lines don't match up, a relative rarity nowadays and a planning headache.

Some property owners would gain, and some would lose, but none more than Gallis, a widow and great-grandmother.

Part of her 2 1/2 acres is zoned "rural residential" and part of it is "local business." Her commercial acre is the largest piece targeted to become residential.

It's hard to put a price on Gallis' land, but it is clearly worth more zoned commercial than residential, said Rob Moxley, a developer who lives in another rural Howard community and is familiar with Highland.

Neighbors are angry.

"It might make sense in the world of plane geometry, but not in the world of economics," said Dan O'Leary, president of the Greater Highland Crossroads Association, which opposes the line shifts. "The proposal would unduly enrich some ... and it would impoverish others for the sake of simplicity."

If Highland's zoning lines are perplexing planners, he added, "we would be happy to help them."

The County Council will decide what to do when it votes at the end of the year on a comprehensive zoning plan for Howard. But planners said redrawing lines in this way -- something they have also proposed near U.S. 40, around U.S. 1 and in the tiny rural outpost of Daisy -- eliminates a source of conflict.

When a piece of land is partly in one zone and partly in another, it's harder to determine where one starts and the other ends, said Steven M. Johns, a planner involved in comprehensive rezoning. One zone per parcel "is clearer for both sides, for property owner and neighbor," he said, and it simplifies the process of placing new buildings on the land.

But Marsha McLaughlin, the county's interim planning director, promised yesterday to take another look at Highland as her department digests the reaction to its recommendations.

"When you're dealing with zoning lines, there's a lot of value tied up in them," Johns noted. "Sometimes moving it even a few feet can be a big deal."

It certainly is to Gallis. Her husband, Sylvester, died of lung cancer 2 1/2 years ago. After he became ill, she said, she had a hard time paying the bills -- including the property tax, which cost her nearly $4,000 this year. She said she has had offers for her land, but she wants to hang on as long as possible in a town she loves.

"It's been a struggle," she said.

Gallis' home is in the heart of Highland, in a tiny commercial crossroads at the intersection of Routes 108 and 216. A dozen businesses, from a country market to a saddlery, stand alongside the strip.

Born in a house at the crossroads, Gallis moved away in 1955 when she married, but returned with her husband several years later to the 19th-century log cabin next door. Her uncle lived there and needed care.

He died in 1968, willing her his 2 1/2 acres of land. Since then, Gallis has cared for five children, an ailing husband, grandchildren and -- for the past seven years or so -- has worked full time at Boarman's Meat Market across the street. Her only son runs a small concrete company from the site, but the work is performed elsewhere.

The planners' recommendation is to make the entire parcel "rural residential," a designation that would allow no additional homes on the land.

Gallis learned of this because someone else noticed and passed the word on. Howard County is not required to notify people whose property is being considered in the once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning.

Unlike many of the landowners, however, Gallis had not asked for changes.

"I just never expected anything like this," she said. "I think it's terrible that they're putting me in this position."

William E. Erskine, an attorney who has assisted the Greater Highland Crossroads Association, also agreed to represent Gallis. He thinks the town's unusual zoning is an issue only because a recent proposal for a funeral home at the intersection -- on split-zoned land -- drew criticism and made planners take a closer look at the area.

The planners' recommendations would add about 2 acres of commercial zoning to some properties and remove about 3 acres elsewhere. Souder Builders, the funeral home developer, would gain a little more than a half-acre, though that's not nearly as much as it had requested.

"If they're going to give commercial land, in theory you've got to take it from someplace," Erskine said. "Our feeling is that Mrs. Gallis should not be the sacrificial lamb."

David A. Carney, the attorney representing the funeral home developer, thinks it's "ludicrous" to have property lines and zoning lines at odds with each other, but he said his client isn't trying to take commercial zoning from anyone, let alone a widow.

"Why would you change the business zoning when it's got a business use?" Carney asked, referring to the Gallis concrete company.

Gallis can't see why, either.

"I really can't afford to give this up without a fight," she said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.