Frustrated panel plays broker

Zoning Board delays Maple Lawn decision, wants the parties to forge a compromise

December 23, 2005|BY A SUN REPORTER

It is an unusual turn of events when elected officials condemn their own process. Such was the case this week when the County Council, sitting as the Zoning Board, surprised many by first playing broker and then delaying any decision.

The episode left a sour taste even in the mouths of the participants, prompting the chairman, Guy Guzzle, to describe it as "lousy."

In the end, the board hopes that behind-the-scenes discussions can forge a compromise to the long-standing and contentious debate over how the luxury planned community of Maple Lawn, Maryland should proceed.

But it may be difficult to reach a settlement because the developer and his critics are far apart on fundamental issues.

The developer is seeking approval of a plan to build a 242-unit, age-restricted, or senior housing, complex within Maple Lawn, and to have added 52 units that the county eliminated without discussion when it approved Maple Lawn in December 2000.

At the same time, the county doubled to 100 the number of moderate-income housing units required in the development.

Richard B. Talkin, an attorney representing the developer, said that without the 52 units, moderate-income families will be unable to afford them because of the annual and monthly fees condominium owners face. The issue, he said, is one of economic scale by spreading those costs over a sufficient number of affluent residents.

"We don't have enough market-rate units to make the monthly fees affordable" for the moderate-income owner, he said.

Talkin said that if the county followed its own regulations, Maple Lawn's application would be approved. "Just follow the criteria," he said.

Opponents -mainly neighborhood associations - oppose both requests.

"We've done this already," said G. Macy Nelson, an attorney representing opponents to the expansion of Maple Lawn. "Every argument [Talkin has] made was presented in some fashion during the year 2005 and 1999-2000. It's time to end this case."

Based on their public comments, it appeared that at least a majority of the five-member Zoning Board would have sided against the developer, Greenebaum and Rose Associates Inc., in its attempt to build the senior housing complex.

The board members also made it clear that they are weary of the debate over the development, which five years ago required 30 public meetings - many lasting until midnight or later.

What surprised many was that the board, in effect, attempted to broker a partial deal by asking Talkin if his client would be receptive to dropping its request to restore the 52 units the county cut out of the plan five years ago. In exchange, the county would cut in half the required number of moderate-income units.

"Our problem is this was imposed upon us," Talkin responded. "The public knows about it. There's a public policy to provide moderate-income housing - that was the reason it was put on us. And now to come back and say, `Well, let's take that out of there' - that's something we just are really not amenable to doing."

Guzzone and board member Christopher J. Merdon acknowledged that normal procedures were being subverted by trying to work out a compromise on the fly.

"This is a lousy process, and we all know it," Guzzone said. "If we had our druthers - how many years ago? - we would have all sat in a room and knocked this out. ... We continue to, in our heart of hearts, hope that somehow, maybe after this is over, [that] we have behind-the-scenes discussions to find another process to deal with these kinds of questions."

He said he hopes to "put this to an end ... in a way that really is beneficial to everybody."

Merdon responded: "I agree with you 100 percent. It's extremely frustrating because I think we would have solved this in three minutes if we were able to bring the sides [together and] ... sit down at a table and figure this out, instead of playing this game."

John Adolphsen, an opponent of the project, said he was appalled by the board's attempt to be a broker instead of voting on the developer's application.

"In the engineering profession," he said, "you have to be precise and exact, and if you're not, disastrous things can happen. But in the legal profession, they aren't precise. You can't help but wonder why they are so vague. ... Just let the people know what is really going on."

Another critic, Greg Brown, said he believes the board was simply trying to encourage discussions in hopes of finding a suitable resolution.

"They're trying to bring the case to a close," he said.

Guzzone recessed Tuesday night's meeting to an undetermined date, saying: "I would like to hear that there had been discussions among the parties over issues - or concepts - that I raised earlier."

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