Trying to topple tower

Opponents are challenging the legality of Planning Board's OK of Columbia project

May 21, 2006|BY A SUN REPORTER

Jo Ann Stolley has two visions as she relaxes on her third-floor deck. One is of the kaleidoscope sky as the sun sets. The other is a vision of things to come: a 23-story tower peering down on her and obliterating both her view and privacy.

"It's a nightmare," she says almost in a whisper of the prospect.

But plans for the multimillion-dollar residential and retail tower in downtown Columbia are progressing, even as opponents try desperately to block it.

The project would be the signature building in the county, both in height and accoutrements and, more than any other structure, perhaps permanently transform the lakefront into a center for taller buildings and higher density.

Hearings on an appeal of the Planning Board's approval of the tower will resume tomorrow. But an underlying question is: Can a development so far along be halted?

The county has not issued the necessary building permits, but an executive with the developer, Florida-based WCI Communities Inc., said those are expected soon.

"We're still going through the review process, but I think we will hold to the original time schedule," said Anthony F. Albanese, division president of WCI, and the company's point man for the tower. "We have not made any changes to advance it or slow it down."

If the schedule holds, that would mean the county would issue the building permits next month and preliminary construction -- primarily preparing for utility lines -- would begin immediately thereafter.

"Construction could begin in the second quarter of this year," Albanese said. "We're still on track of doing that."

The company intends to build The Plaza Residences, a 275-foot-tall luxury residential and retail skyscraper overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi. It will include ground-level retail shops and 160 condominiums on 22 stories, with cellar prices in the $600,000s and topping out at over $2 million.

It is estimated that potential buyers have reserved up to 60 percent of the units.

The Planning Board approved WCI's site development plan in January on a 3-1 vote.

Most of the opposition to the tower has centered on the issues of height and the fear of traffic congestion.

But E. Alexander Adams, an attorney retained to file an appeal of the board's approval, is not seeking compromise on height or traffic -- he hopes to scuttle the $70 million project.

Although Adams is challenging the board's decision of four months ago, the thrust of his case dates back four years, when the Planning Board approved WCI's final development plan by amending regulations to permit residential uses on property previously restricted primarily for commercial development.

"Such approval ... was and is ultra vires," or illegal, by going beyond the board's jurisdiction, Adams declares in his appeal.

He claims that the county limits "apartment" uses, which includes condominiums, to a maximum of 13 percent of the land that falls within New Town, or Columbia's, zoning.

Further, Adams says, regulations do not permit residential uses on property zoned for employment.

Having amended zoning laws to permit residential uses on the property in question, he claims, "is to bestow on the current owners of New Town's undeveloped land a huge zoning gift."

He says the Planning Board's action was illegal because only elected officials may enact legislation.

The appeal, though, raises at least two fundamental questions. First, is the appeal legal since it was filed well beyond the 30-day limitation imposed by county regulations? And, if the zoning for WCI's tower is unlawful, what does than mean for the nearby luxury Lakeside at Town Center, a condominium project constructed and occupied under the same zoning and where two of Adams' clients reside?

In a written response to the appeal, Richard B. Talkin, an attorney representing WCI, states that the opponents of the tower "are barred from raising any allegations of error in the approval of the FDP [final development plan] because the 30-day time limitation ... has long since passed."

He also notes county regulations that decisions made as part of the FDP "shall not be subject to review or further consideration as part of the subsequent site development plan process."

Talkin declares that Maryland courts have consistently ruled that the appeals process must be "strictly construed" and that they have "no authority to decide the case on its merits" when the time limitations have not been met.

Thomas P. Carbo, the hearing examiner, is presiding over the case. The hearings began May 1 and are scheduled to resume tomorrow. He rejected Talkin's request for a dismissal of the case, but both sides are still sparring over whether the opponents have legal standing to contest the Planning Board's decision.

Adams filed the appeal on behalf of four county residents: Stephen Meskin, Lloyd Knowles, Joel Broida and Stolley. She and Broida reside in Lakeside, the condominium development on Wincopin Circle, across the street from where the tower would be constructed.

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