Maple Lawn expansion plan hinges on question of density

Zoning Board to hear final arguments tomorrow

July 27, 2005|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

Two questions, both simple in their own way, appear to hold the key to the proposed expansion of Maple Lawn, Maryland, the luxury planned community in Fulton.

Critics of the expansion were handed a stinging defeat this week when the Howard County Zoning Board rejected their principal argument that the county legally could not increase overall density, or the number of units per acre, in the sprawling, 605-acre development.

That does not necessarily mean, though, that the board, made up of members of the County Council, is leaning toward handing the developer a complete victory.

The board will hear closing arguments tomorrow from attorneys representing both sides.

Countless arguments and counterpoints have been made during three marathon hearings before the Zoning Board, but perhaps none has been more significant than the rudimentary queries asked by the board.

The first, posed by board Chairman Ken Ulman, is whether there is a point at which attempting to modify the development's plan, approved five years ago, is reasonable.

Opponents of the expansion argue that time is irrelevant. They say nothing in the intervening five years has changed to justify altering the scope of Maple Lawn.

The developer says time is everything, arguing that profound economic and market changes in Howard County merit expansion.

The second question, asked by board member Christopher J. Merdon, is whether expanding Maple Lawn by about 97 acres is compatible with the plan the county approved after a record 32 nights of hearings in 2000.

Critics acknowledge that they always realized the size of Maple Lawn probably would be expanded and do not object to it. That would leave only the question of density, both within the residential and commercial areas of Maple Lawn.

The developer, Greenebaum and Rose Associates Inc., is seeking to increase overall density to 2.7 units per acre from 2.2 units, the level approved by the county five years ago in what it hoped was a compromise in ending the often contentious debate over Maple Lawn. Greenebaum and Rose also is seeking to increase commercial space to 1.8 million square feet from more than 1.175 million square feet.

That compromise, though, has always been tenuous because zoning on the property permits a density of 3 units per acre, and because Maple Lawn is zoned mixed use. According to the county's general plan, housing should be concentrated in areas zoned for mixed use because the development is within the water and sewer boundaries and near major thoroughfares, such as U.S. 29, Routes 216 and 32 and Interstate 95.

The issue of density at Maple Lawn has taken on new implications recently because most of the additional housing proposed there would be for an age-restricted complex within Maple Lawn. The county has said there is a serious shortage of housing for those 55 and older, and that shortage is expected to grow.

"We're adhering strictly to the general plan, and we're being pilloried," Stewart Greenebaum, founding partner and president of the development company, said in an interview after Monday night's hearing. "Public officials have to pay attention. And if they were, they will see that more people signed up to testify for the project than against - not our paid consultants, but ordinary citizens.

"You have to distinguish between good planning and bad. Even our critics can't say anything against the project. It's one of the finest communities in the county. Planning should reward the good and punish the bad."

Maple Lawn's critics see the effort to increase the density as a violation of the plan as originally approved, as well as of the commitment the county made to those who live not in the development but in its vicinity.

Opponents who testified against the developer's request declared their concerns about traffic congestion and safety, overcrowded schools and whether the development would be compatible with the largely rural area.

John Adolphsen, a longtime opponent of Maple Lawn, said "moral, ethical and fairness" issues are involved and he said the changes sought are "arrogant and a breach of good faith. ... They are an abuse of the zoning process."

Greg Brown, a spokesman for a coalition of neighborhood groups, said the developer "has chosen to ignore" the density restrictions imposed by the county five years ago. For the Zoning Board to increase density, he said, would render "frivolous" the work by citizens and the county in 2000.

This year, the Planning Board, which advises the Zoning Board and County Council, endorsed expanding the size of Maple Lawn but voted, 3-1, against increasing the density.

It is possible the Zoning Board will find that position more palatable, especially when two members of the board - Merdon and Guy Guzzone - are expected next year to run for county executive. Neither wishes to be branded as a "no growth" opponent or viewed as too cozy with developers.

The Zoning Board held two nights of hearings on the issue last week and a third earlier this week.

On Monday, the board rejected a formal petition filed by G. Macy Nelson, an attorney representing opponents of Maple Lawn. He argued that the Zoning Board is prohibited from overturning the earlier density limitation because the developer has "failed to prove any material changes in roads, infrastructure or land uses on neighboring properties" or in the absence of "fraud, surprise, or some other change in fact or law."

Richard B. Talkin, an attorney representing the developer, said that numerous and significant changes have occurred since Maple Lawn was approved, among them the need for senior housing, expansion of other companies in the area which have changed the character of the neighborhood and an acknowledged need to place housing near the jobs that are being created in the county.

It is unclear when the Zoning Board will reach a decision.

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