Tower builder offers experts

Testimony begins on Columbia project

May 03, 2006|BY A SUN REPORTER

If there is a question of what is at stake in the proposed tower for downtown Columbia, one need only to see the developer's arsenal at the first day of testimony before the hearing examiner on an appeal filed by opponents to the huge multimillion-dollar structure.

The hearing, featuring a bevy of experts, lasted 4 1/2 hours but was little more than a sparring match, and the most substantive issues are yet to be fought.

At issue is the county Planning Board's approval in January of The Plaza Residences, a 275-foot-tall luxury residential and retail tower overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi.

The structure would include 22 stories of condominiums -- ranging in price from $600,000 to more than $2 million -- and a single floor of retail at ground level.

Most of the opposition has centered on the height of the tower, which would be the tallest in Columbia, and the fear of the traffic the structure would produce.

But opponents also are expected to argue in the hearings that approval of the tower is illegal, and that the Planning Board ignored its discretion by not restricting the height of the structure.

Richard B. Talkin, the attorney for the developer, said the tower complies with all county regulations, and he said there are no legal limitations on height.

However, a motion on behalf of the developer, Florida-based WCI Communities Inc., to dismiss the appeal was denied.

Talkin sought the dismissal Monday, arguing that county regulations were violated when the formal appeals document was not signed by those filing it but instead by their attorney, E. Alexander Adams.

"When there is a prescribed process," Talkin said, "they must be scrupulously followed. ... The statutory regulations have not been met."

Adams said: "My actions were specifically authorized by my clients. ... There is an inherent power of an attorney to represent a client."

Hearing examiner Thomas P. Carbo ruled that they must sign the appeal document, but that their failure to do so was insufficient to throw out the case.

It is doubtful that the developer expected to win the case on such a technical point, but the fact that the issue was raised illustrated that every opening will be pursued.

To underscore that point, Talkin filed a second motion questioning the legal standing of Adams' four clients.

The law requires that one must have been a party to the Planning Board's cases and "specially aggrieved" before he can legally challenge the board's decision, Talkin said.

"A party must be able to show not only that they will be affected by a particular zoning matter, but that their `interest therein must be such that he is personally and specially affected in a way different from that suffered by the public generally,'" he said.

Talkin called several expert witnesses hoping to prove that Stephen Meskin, Lloyd Knowles, Joel Broida and Jo Ann Stolley, all Columbia residents, legally do not qualify as parties to the appeal, although for different reasons.

Those experts included a civil engineer, traffic expert and a real estate consultant and appraiser.

In the cases of Knowles, for instance, testimony showed that he lives 1.8 miles from the site of the proposed tower and suggested he could not be adversely affected because there are subdivisions, other commercial and retail developments and The Mall in Columbia between his home and the tower.

Meskin resides 1,400 feet from the tower site and, testimony indicated, on most days during the year the structure would not be visible from his property.

Stolley lacks jurisdiction to challenge the Planning Board's decision, Talkin said, because she was not a party to the board's proceedings as required by law.

The real estate expert said Broida, who claims that he is concerned that the tower would hurt the value of his property, would most likely benefit because the luxury structure would aid the appreciation of property values in the area.

Stolley and Broida reside in the luxury Lakeside condominium development on Wincopin Circle, across the street from where the tower would be constructed.

The question of standing was not resolved because the hearing was halted and continued until May 22.

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