Citizens complain Parole plan is kept under wraps

Owens rejects suggestion that county is hiding details

August 17, 2005|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN STAFF

Over and over, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens has heard the accusations that her administration is hiding information about the redevelopment of Parole Plaza.

The morning after 50 community activists and other citizens challenged the Anne Arundel County Council to address more of Owens' "stonewalling" regarding the $400 million project, the county executive shot back yesterday that she has had enough.

"I don't have a lot of patience for this anymore," she said.

Skeptics of one of the largest redevelopment projects in county history feel the same way about Owens' planners, accusing them Monday night of concealing pertinent details of the 35-acre project from the public.

"Attempts by citizens to get information on Parole have been next to impossible," Scott Mobley, president of the Annapolis Neck Peninsula Federation, told the council. "The administration has shrouded Parole in a cloak of secrecy."

While supporting efforts to develop the vacant site near U.S. 50, community leaders criticized the speed of the approval process for the proposed Annapolis Towne Centre at Parole, and the perceived lack of oversight by Owens and her planning director, Joseph W. Rutter Jr., as the project has nearly doubled in size - to 2.1 million square feet of residential, retail and office space - from what was first approved 11 years ago.

The growing scale has renewed residents' worries about traffic and environmental concerns, but they said their paramount concern is a perceived unwillingness of the Owens administration to reveal unfavorable details that could derail the project.

County Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, a Democrat who represents the Parole area, has sought answers about the amount of open space to be included, traffic congestion and design changes to the project - including a recently added retaining wall that buffers it from Route 2.

But she said she has come up empty.

"We, the citizens, have many more questions and no resources for the answers," said Don Yeskey, president of the Generals Highway Council of Civic Associations.

The criticisms drew a strong response from Owens. The Democrat said the idea that county officials were keeping details of the Parole plan secret was "absolutely ridiculous."

"For anyone who has complained, these people must not have lived here in the past 13 years," she said.

She praised the developer, Greenberg Commercial Corp. She called the protest "a last-ditch effort by Ms. Samorajczyk and a few others" to stop a major revitalization project.

Greenberg President and Chief Executive Brian Gibbons has said that he hoped to perform grading and rip up underground utility lines this year and begin building next year. The developer purchased the 35 acres in April 2004.

The protest Monday night came weeks after Rutter sought to determine whether Samorajczyk's line of questioning about the Annapolis Towne Centre amounted to giving him and his staff orders, an action that is illegal under the county charter.

County Attorney Linda Schuett responded that, under the charter, Samorajczyk was entitled to ask questions but that Owens' administration has no obligation to respond to her. A spokesman for Owens, however, was quick to say that Rutter would answer the councilwoman's inquires.

Rutter responded in writing to Samorajczyk's latest inquiry two weeks ago, but of the 17 questions he was presented, he declined to answer five of them, construing those as attempts "to influence the decision of the Office of Planning and Zoning." On other questions, Rutter told the councilwoman she could review project files herself or contact Greenberg representatives.

Rutter wrote that he could not answer some of Samorajczyk's questions because the final development plan is being reviewed by his staff. The planning director has reiterated to the councilwoman and others that all information on the project is available for review.

Samorajczyk, herself an attorney, said that all the information may be there, but that answers are lost in a blizzard of paperwork that neither she, nor anyone, could decipher alone.

"I've been reviewing documents this thick," she said, raising her hand over her head, "and I don't understand it."

In other news from Monday night's meeting, three amendments were added to the comprehensive zoning bill for the Pasadena/Marley Neck and Lake Shore areas. County Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr. said he expected a vote on the final package next month.

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