County grants exemptions to growth freeze

Two property owners get OK to subdivide property for housing

Financial hardship is reason

Developers battling one-year moratorium call decisions arbitrary

Carroll County

October 08, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The Carroll commissioners granted for the first time yesterday financial hardship exemptions to the county's yearlong growth freeze, one for a 14-home subdivision near Finksburg and one for a six-home subdivision in Woodbine.

Deborah Cooper, owner of the property near Finksburg, told the commissioners she would be unable to pay her grandmother's medical bills without the money she would earn from subdividing 26 acres of her family's farm. Fred Kent, owner of the Woodbine property, said he and his wife would face imminent financial ruin if not allowed to subdivide their 35-acre farm.

"We have no other resources that will allow us to continue our lives," Kent said, before breaking into tears.

The commissioners voted unanimously to grant both exemptions, showing a rare willingness to relent on the freeze, scheduled to remain in place until June.

They had promised to consider making exceptions for landowners who have no other way to pay their bills. "This is exactly why we created" a hardship clause, said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich after hearing Kent's testimony.

Kent and Cooper said the votes showed the commissioners can be compassionate. "I thought they would be fair," Kent said.

Some developers who are battling the freeze in court or through administrative appeals have said the commissioners are acting arbitrarily by granting exemptions in a handful of cases. But the commissioners have argued that the freeze was never meant to ruin people and that the hardship exemptions will only be granted to landowners who can document serious financial problems, such as an inability to pay medical bills or mortgages.

The freeze closed the door to new subdivisions on land covered by adequate-facilities laws designed to prevent growth from overwhelming county services. It also has delayed development on about 1,700 lots that passed earlier stages in the county's subdivision review process.

Two developers, JFJME Family LLC of Westminster and James Kohler of Eldersburg, have filed legal challenges against the freeze. Circuit Judge Michael M. Galloway heard Kohler's request last week for an injunction that would prohibit the county from enforcing the freeze and said he would render what could be a precedent-setting decision in the next few weeks. Because an injunction would take effect immediately, county land-use attorneys say it probably represents their best tool to battle the freeze, which could expire by the time any suit receives a full hearing.

More than 30 other developers have filed freeze-related administrative appeals to the county's Board of Zoning Appeals. The board has denied or dismissed 15 of those appeals and granted one on a technicality separate from the conditions set by the freeze.

The freeze includes several exemption clauses, including ones for assisted-living and retirement communities and for properties that might be annexed by the county's towns. The commissioners granted one exemption for a $40 million, 100-unit expansion at Fairhaven Retirement Community in Sykesville.

Two months after approving the freeze in June, the commissioners added an exemption clause for financially strapped landowners and developers. Under the clause, landowners must provide full financial records and examples of hardship, such as foreclosure notices or medical bills. They also have to demonstrate that their hardships can be relieved only through development.

Cooper submitted the medical bills she pays for her grandmother, who has Alzheimer's disease. The commissioners debated her request for a few minutes because they worried that the 14 proposed houses, near Route 32 and Deer Park Road, might strain the Reese fire company's ability to answer emergency calls. But planning director Steven C. Horn recommended that they look past qualms about emergency response.

"The weight of financial hardship is greater than the weight of the inadequacy," he told the commissioners. They agreed.

Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. told Cooper, "You deserve a lot of credit caring for your grandmother that way."

Kent said he and his wife faced "certain disaster" if not allowed to proceed with their subdivision plan, which would add six houses at Gillis and Davis roads.

The commissioners said they found the Kents' financial documents convincing and did not debate before voting to give the couple an exemption.

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