A Carroll County circuit judge said he will "rule promptly" on a developer's contempt suit against the county, a complaint that called for incarcerating the entire planning commission, including County Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.
But Judge Michael M. Galloway will first review a suit involving the same Eldersburg development that is scheduled for an administrative hearing in May. Galloway could be reassigned to that case.
"I have to confess that I wonder how I can separate the two proceedings," Galloway said Friday.
The legal machinations to bring a 254-townhouse subdivision to a crowded area of Eldersburg date back a decade. Attorneys for the county and the developer spared Galloway much of the historical details and focused on the most recent events in the hearing Friday.
Benjamin Rosenberg, the attorney for Carrolltowne Development Partnership, filed a petition for contempt in October, soon after the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission denied a site plan for the proposed rental units on a 20-acre parcel along Kali Drive, near Ridge Road, in Eldersburg. The area is coping with crowded classrooms, congested roads and seasonal water shortages, all valid reasons for the denial, county officials said.
A month later, the Board of Zoning Appeals upheld the denial.
The developer is pursuing the wrong county board, said Terri A. Jones, assistant county attorney.
"The planning commission has no authority to approve a plan the BZA denied," said Jones.
The partnership first attempted to build the townhouses in 1995. The planning commission refused to approve the site plan then and again a year later, but the Circuit Court for Carroll County reversed those decisions and ordered the commission to approve the development in 1999.
The county commissioners did not appeal the judge's ruling, and the developer did not move forward with the project, choosing to pursue the possibility of commercial uses for the parcel.
When the county removed the business zoning designation from the land, the developer revived the residential plan and brought it to the planning commission in August -- five years after the judge's decision. The planning commission ruled then that the developer had run out of time, noting the county's sunset policy that gives a developer 18 months to submit a site plan or restart the process.
"The plan becomes void after 18 months," Jones said. "No one thought the developer would wait five years to submit a plan."
Rosenberg said the county caused the delay by rezoning the property for commercial uses and encouraging the developer to pursue those options.
"When it was rezoned back to residential, we submitted a site plan to the planning commission within days," Rosenberg said. "It was the very same site plan that the judge had directed them to approve in 1999."
Applying 1995 development standards in an area that has seen unprecedented growth is unfair, Jones said.
"This case is about change," Jones said. "Things have changed since 1995. The commission had to look at current circumstances."
Rosenberg said the planning commission "thumbed its nose at this court. The only remedy is the remedy of contempt."
Residents opposed to the development mounted a petition drive that gathered more than 800 signatures. They delivered the petitions to the judge this month. Galloway also has received numerous letters of protest.
Galloway could issue a motion to dismiss the contempt suit and thereby end the case. He could also defer the case until the court hears Carrolltowne's petition for judicial review in May.