Council ponders zoning exemption

Hardship waiver request of woman, 80, spurs fears of a precedent on `infill'

April 04, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Most of Marjorie Gonce's money is tied up in the 5-acre Elkridge property where she has lived frugally for more than 50 years. Now she would like to enjoy some of her home's value by selling one lot and using the money to travel and help fund her grandchildren's education.

But as the first person to ask for a hardship exemption under a new Howard County zoning law regulating new homes in older neighborhoods, Gonce needs permission from the County Council.

"It seems like every older person should have the ability in a thing like this to be considered seriously in a positive way," said Gonce, 80, at a recent public hearing.

At her age, she argued, she can't afford to wait. And as a person who, with her husband, raised nine children and built a house without a bank loan or holding credit cards, she is uncomfortable getting cash the modern way -- on credit.

But the law was changed to prevent multiple small exemptions from adding up to more congested schools and roads. Although they sympathized, three council members said Gonce, who is a widow, is not financially desperate enough to qualify for a precedent-setting exception for the half-acre Montgomery Road lot she wants to sell.

"It's not my definition of a hardship," said West Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman. He described examples such as "a pile of bills, [being] on a respirator, somebody's going to foreclose, can't afford medication."

The council will vote Wednesday on Gonce's application.

"We really have to set a very strong precedent on this issue, or it will be abused," Ulman said.

Gonce asked the councilmen at a public hearing March 15 to look favorably on her request to subdivide one approximately half-acre lot. She declined last week to comment further about her testimony.

Based on annual housing allocations set by the County Council, Gonce would have to wait until 2009 to create the lot. But while considering legislation to reform "infill" development in existing communities, council members agreed to allow exemptions based on financial hardship.

Community groups, frustrated over the effects of infill on their neighborhoods, worked with the county Department of Planning and Zoning last year to develop the original bill. Together, they left out the exemption entirely because "we couldn't figure out a way to define hardship," said Marsha McLaughlin, the county planning director.

Many felt the exemption created rampant abuse of the intent of the exemption, which led to poorly planned construction.

"Some of the developments we were seeing ... they were ugly and they didn't work well," said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican who represents Ellicott City and Elkridge.

The contract on the Gonce property calls for settlement in two years, provided approvals are granted, testified attorney Patrick D. Malloy.

"By the time the property could be developed, her health could decline," he said.

Gonce will continue to live on the larger lot, which is zoned for about two houses per acre. She received several deposits from the developer, Ronald B. Wildman, which she testified she does not feel comfortable spending. Wildman did not testify at the hearing and could not be reached for comment.

Merdon, who did not attend the hearing, said he plans to support Gonce's application.

"When we established the guidelines that we did, we really meant for people in Mrs. Gonce's situation to apply and get the waiver," he said last week.

East Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes said he is also leaning toward allowing the exemption, although he was "concerned about the precedent this will set."

Other councilmen were not sure the situation met their definitions of hardship.

Western Howard Republican Allan H. Kittleman was concerned with Gonce's statements about age.

"At my age, every year is a great big deal," Gonce said during the hearing. "It'd just be actually wrong not to make that a consideration."

"I personally cannot see using age as a criteria," Kittleman responded during the hearing.

He, too, said he was sympathetic to Gonce's situation, but speculated that lots of county residents would also like to help their grandchildren.

When the council made its decision, it left the door cracked open for legitimate hardships, Ulman said, such as medical bills or bankruptcy.

"If we open the door too much, then there's really no point in having closed the loophole," Ulman said.

"The fact is, she has a tremendous amount of equity in her home," he said.

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