Fighting project to the end

Subdivision: After years of opposition, a builder wants final approval of plans for an Ellicott City development.

December 30, 2003|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Ellicott City homeowners on Church Road have lost every battle in the past three years to block construction of 15 homes in their historic neighborhood. From Howard County's Planning and Zoning Board to the Board of Appeals to Circuit Court, this tenacious group of about 10 residents could not stop the development.

Now Michael L. Pfau, the developer and president of Trinity Homes Inc., is asking the county's Historic District Commission to give the final stamp of approval so he can begin construction on the Woods at Park Place. And the Church Road residents are right behind him, with a last chance to weigh in on the development - the first new subdivision in the county's two designated historic districts.

Although they know the development is inevitable, the residents want the houses to blend in with their century-old homes that sit back from the narrow, winding road.

"We have stuck with this together as a community since Day One," said Jamie Wendell, a Church Road resident. "We're a very determined group."

Throughout the subdivision approval process - which began four years ago - homeowners have said that only four homes should be built on the 6-acre site, surrounded by 9 acres of woods. Pfau, who first asked for 21 houses, agreed to 15.

Since Church Road residents saw Pfau's proposed designs three months ago, they have said that the houses are not compatible with existing homes in the neighborhood. They object to the large homes on small lots, in contrast to their large lots - an average of 2.3 acres - and smaller, narrower houses.

"The view, the generous yards and the rhythm of the houses, it hangs together as a collection, a beautiful streetscape," said Kay Weeks, a 10-year resident of Church Road who works in the historic preservation department with the National Park Service.

Pfau said the asking price for a home in the Woods at Park Place will start at about $600,000.

"The bottom line is we want to preserve what's special about this community. Once it's gone, it's gone," said Gary Segal, former president of the Patapsco Heights-Church Road Association.

The county included the Church Road area in its historic district in 1989. It represents the residential growth away from Ellicott City's Main Street between the late 1880s and the early 1920s. The houses are set back from the road and some are not visible from the street.

Pfau's home designs are under review by the Historic District Commission, which oversees the appearance of the district, including design and materials, but not the number of homes or the lot size.

The development presents a challenge to the commission, which typically reviews requests to renovate, repair or build an addition to a home.

In this case, it is the panel's responsibility to ensure that a subdivision built from scratch is consistent with the architecture and design characteristics of original homes on Church Road.

"It's very rare to see new construction proposed in the historic district," said Stephen Lafferty, deputy director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning. "So it did present a separate set of issues that the commission rarely had to confront."

The panel previously rejected three of Pfau's design proposals as incompatible with the Church Road area.

In its denial, the commission wrote that "the historical architectural aspects of the area remain vibrant. Many of the contributing structures in the area are simple in shape, design, and ornamentation."

After failing to win approval of his designs, Pfau requested a meeting with the commission to get a better idea of what it wants. The meeting, which was held this month, was designated as an informal advisory session, but Pfau showed up with new designs.

He presented the first three plans of six model homes, which with "adaptations" - such as porches and window design - avoid the homogenous look of some modern developments, Pfau said.

The new house designs averaged a width of 44 feet, compared with an earlier plan in which the house width was between 58 and 78 feet. He also moved the garages from the front to the side of the houses and put detached garages on the two larger end lots.

In general, the commission members found the designs to be an improvement over previous submissions. But they said they would prefer still narrower houses, expressed concern about the garages and asked Pfau to provide designs for decks.

The Church Road residents, however, were not impressed.

"To me, these are still model tract homes," Weeks said.

"I liked the fronts," Wendell said. "But if you look at the sides and backs, they're all identical. It's going to look like a subdivision, and he just doesn't get it."

Pfau was prepared for the reaction. He said he and his architect are working to address the commission's concerns, before he officially submits the plans next month.

"The only thing they're going to be happy with is if I build four homes there," Pfau said. "[They've] been that way since I started. That battle's been tough and won, and there'll be 15 homes up there."

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