Construction of additions also builds city tensions

Neighbors decry projects that block their views

July 06, 2005|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

The online real estate listing for the semi-detached house a few blocks from the waterfront in Southeast Baltimore boasts of the "exceptional renovation" and the "amazing views from the roof deck."

But city officials say the rehab work on the Upper Fells Point property was illegally done and the developer needs to tear down the three-story addition that provides those vistas.

"If he doesn't have a permit, he has to take it down," said Sandra R. Gutman, a city lawyer who represents the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals.

Developer Brian McCloskey, principal of the McCloskey Group LLC, and his attorney, Joseph R. Woolman III, counter that the work was based on a valid permit - and they have no intention of tearing it down.

"It's there and it's going to stay there," said Woolman.

The dispute takes to another level the debate over the construction of additions that has roiled many South and Southeast Baltimore neighborhoods for more than a year.

In these neighborhoods, once among the city's hottest and most historic, many developers and some residents want to put additions on their properties to increase the living space.

Other residents and many community leaders complain that the proliferation of such additions - which are often the subject of contentious battles before the zoning board - are blocking others' harbor views and altering the character of neighborhoods.

In December, the zoning board, seeking to improve its review process, adopted general guidelines for rowhouse additions that include recommendations on the types of materials to be used and a formula for calculating how big an addition could be built on a given lot.

Upper Fells Point is not the only neighborhood where a new addition is stirring controversy.

In Brewers Hill, several residents contend that the zoning board last July improperly approved an addition for a rowhouse in the 700 block of S. Grundy St. About 30 neighbors have signed a petition urging the zoning board to disapprove any request for additions without the written consent of 80 percent of the residents on the block and two community associations, but they are not asking that the structure be taken down.

David Tanner, executive director of the zoning board, said it is unusual but not unprecedented for the city to require a property owner to tear down something that has been built. He said there have been about 10 such cases in the past 20 years, including one this year in South Baltimore, where a third-story addition was built without any permits.

"There is history behind it," he said.

In Upper Fells Point, McCloskey, who has rehabbed several properties in Southeast Baltimore, bought the semi-detached, two-story house in the middle of the 200 block of S. Collington Ave. for $105,000 in the fall of 2003.

After demolishing a one-story addition at the rear of the house, he received a permit to build a new three-story structure.

When neighbors complained about the size of the project, zoning officials reviewed the permit and said it had been issued in error because McCloskey did not disclose that the building was not a rowhouse. Semi-detached homes are covered by different requirements than rowhouses, according to court records.

Officials told McCloskey to halt construction and said he had to go before the zoning board to seek a waiver from zoning regulations to allow the addition to be finished.

The zoning board denied the waiver, citing in part the fact that it would hurt nearby properties, and a subsequent request for reconsideration. McCloskey appealed both decisions to Baltimore Circuit Court.

Separately, the city issued a notice saying the addition violated zoning regulations and ordered the removal of the structure but has stayed enforcement pending the outcome of the appeals.

"It is the city's position that what has been constructed is improper," said Gutman, the city lawyer.

McCloskey lost a round in court last week when Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock turned down his appeal of the zoning board's denial of his request for reconsideration, saying that because there was no written record she had no basis on which to overturn the decision.

"I must say, when these zoning board cases come before this court, they present new and interesting dilemmas," Murdock said.

The developer's appeal of the zoning board's original denial of the waiver is still pending. Woolman, who insists his client needed no approval beyond the permits, acknowledges he might lose that case as well because it missed the 30-day filing deadline. But he vows to litigate any attempt by the city to enforce the violation notice by requiring the demolition of the addition.

McCloskey says he has put $185,000 into renovating the house. Despite lowering the asking price $50,000 to $374,900 and offering prospects the choice of renting with an option to buy, he says, potential buyers are scared away once they are told of the continuing zoning battle.

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