Threatened, Carroll panel OKs townhouses

Residents wanted board to risk jail, deny project

July 20, 2005|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Threatened with jail time, the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission reversed itself yesterday and voted 3-to-1 in favor of a plan for 254 rental townhouses in Eldersburg, a project that has been in dispute for more than a decade.

But the county commissioners said late yesterday that they would appeal to the Court of Special Appeals a lower court's order that the plan must be approved or planning commission members would be held in contempt and face jail.

"We were elected to represent the best interests of the residents of this county," the three commissioners said in a joint statement. "We cannot in good conscience allow this development to proceed."

In a June 30 ruling, Carroll Circuit Judge Michael M. Galloway ordered the planning commission to approve the site plan for the rental complex in the county's most populous and fastest-growing area.

The planning commission had denied the project three times since 1995, based on crowded classrooms, congested roads, insufficient water and strained emergency services. Galloway, however, agreed with the developer that a six-year-old court ruling that ordered the panel to approve the development was still applicable.

The plan for the 20-acre property on Kali Drive near Ridge Road can move through the county's development review process during the appeal.

South Carroll residents filled the auditorium at Carroll Community College yesterday to ask the planning commission to defy the judge's order. They wanted the commission, whose members are volunteers, to risk jail rather than allow high-density housing in South Carroll.

John Errigo, whose home would adjoin the development, questioned the validity of the commission's vote taken under duress.

"How can this board make a decision based on the community's best interests when they are looking to keep themselves out of jail?" he asked.

Nick Padula, vice president of an Eldersburg homeowners' group, said, "I wanted the Hollywood ending -- the one where these guys stand up for the community."

The commission could have appealed the decision, but the threat of jail would remain unless Galloway stayed his ruling pending the outcome of the appeal, county officials said.

Benjamin Rosenberg, attorney for Carroll Development Partnership, has repeatedly said he would seek incarceration until the commission, which includes Julia Walsh Gouge, president of the board of county commissioners, complied with the judge's order.

"My client is certainly respectful of the process this commission has gone through," he said. "We live by the rule of law, and the judge was following the law when he issued this order. There are ultimate consequences to anybody who refuses to obey."

In his motion to approve the plan, planning commissioner Wayne Schuster called the vote "a dark day" for common-sense land use.

"The planning commission has consistently denied this project because of inadequate facilities," Schuster said. "Now we have been threatened and intimidated publicly. We are basically told to approve the plan or go to jail. We have no recourse other than to comply."

Michael Guerin cast the lone dissenting vote.

The judge's order infringes on the planning commission's "powers to fulfill its functions," Guerin said. "We are asked to apply legitimacy to a plan filled with problems."

Gouge, who is attending the National Association of Counties convention in Hawaii and therefore could not vote, had her assistant read her comments into the record. Her opposition to the project, which she called a travesty of local rights, led to a standing ovation.

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