Loyola center arguments heard

Residents oppose college's plan to build spiritual retreat in area zoned for agriculture


A Baltimore County Circuit judge heard the highlights yesterday of the conflict between Loyola College, which wants to build a spiritual retreat center in a northern Baltimore County area zoned for agriculture, and residents opposed to the plan.

Judge Ruth A. Jakubowski said she doesn't expect her decision to be the last one in the dispute, which began more than two years ago. Neither do those involved in the case.

"This will completely upset a way of life," Lynne Jones, a spokeswoman for Citizens Against Loyola's Multi-use Center, said in explaining why the stakes are so high.

Jones and other neighbors worry that the retreat center, proposed for Parkton, would dry up wells on nearby properties, increase congestion on rural roads and thwart efforts to preserve farmland.

Officials with Loyola College, which reached an agreement with some neighbors originally opposed to their plans, have said that the retreat center would be used 160 days of the year. Lawyers for the college said that the center would cause far fewer car trips and other problems than a school or similar operation given a special exception under county law.

Despite an agreement restricting development at the retreat center, Jones said residents fear that the operations would expand eventually.

"Once it's in, it's in," she said. "It will be hard to police the activities."

The center would be built on 10 of the property's 53 acres, the rest of which would be preserved, said James A. Dunbar, a lawyer representing Loyola.

Loyola's proposal includes a 16,000-square-foot center and three dormitories, each with 20 single bedrooms, at York and Stablersville roads.

"The issue here, we believe, is whether this particular use at this particular location would have more negative impacts than one would usually expect," Dunbar said.

G. Macy Nelson, a lawyer for the residents, said the question is whether the Loyola center would have more negative effects at the proposed site than it would elsewhere in the agricultural zone.

In June 2004, a zoning commissioner granted the college a special exception to the agricultural zoning designation, allowing it to proceed with its plans over the objections of neighbors.

The county Board of Appeals upheld the commissioner's ruling in March 2005. That was when the citizens group decided to appeal to Circuit Court.

People's Counsel Peter Max Zimmerman, who represents the public in Baltimore County land-use and environmental matters, also argued before Jakubowski, saying the Board of Appeals had erred in granting the zoning exception.

"I've spent many hours trying to figure out how the Board of Appeals made such an extreme error," Zimmerman told the judge.

There is no deadline for Jakubowski to issue her decision.

Nelson and Dunbar said that after Jakubowski rules, one side or the other is likely to appeal to the state Court of Special Appeals.laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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