Tower foes face tough queries

Appeal proceedings stuck on legal issue

May 24, 2006|BY A SUN REPORTER

Opponents of the proposed luxury residential and retail skyscraper in downtown Columbia appear to be fighting an uphill battle to scuttle the multimillion-dollar development.

Four county residents -- Stephen Meskin, Lloyd Knowles, Joel Broida and Jo Ann Stolley -- have filed an appeal of the Planning Board's approval in January of The Plaza Residences, which would have 22 stories of luxury residential units and a level of retail shops. The tower would be the tallest building in the county.

Thus far, the proceedings have been stuck on the issue of whether the opponents have legal standing to file the appeal. Attorney E. Alexander Adams is representing the opponents, while the developer, Florida-based WCI Communities Inc., has retained attorney Richard B. Talkin.

But Monday's hearing on the issue illustrated just how contentious this fight has become, as Broida and Stolley were subjected to bruising cross-examination from a developer's attorney.

The two opponents, both of whom live in a condominium project adjacent to where the 275-foot tall tower is planned, were forced to acknowledge that before acquiring their units they had been warned there could be additional development in the area and that they had failed to determine what might be built on the property.

The hearing grew increasingly testy as Broida and Stolley were subjected to pointed questioning by S. Scott Morrison, an attorney brought in by Talkin and who specializes in cross-examination.

Broida and Stolley purchased units in the Lakeside at Town Center condominium development on Wincopin Circle, across the street from where the tower would be constructed.

They claim, in part, that the tower will ruin their views, hurt property values and provoke traffic and parking congestion in the area.

Morrison, of the Washington firm of Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, sought to show that they cannot claim to be harmed by the tower because they had sufficient warnings but failed to act on them.

Morrison grilled them on what they knew, when they knew it and their responses to the information and warnings before purchasing their Lakeside units.

He reminded them frequently that they were giving sworn testimony, which finally prompted Adams to snap, "I've had enough of your saying they are under oath. You're abusing these witnesses."

Morrison complained of Adams' numerous objections and accused him of being "obstructionist."

Stolley and Broida acknowledged that their contracts stipulated that their views were not guaranteed and warned that additional development could occur in the area.

Broida acknowledged that he had seen an advertisement for a planned 25-story tower in Town Center before purchasing his Lakeside unit. Although that development did not materialize, it was proposed on the same site WCI acquired for its tower.

Stolley said she and her husband did not contact the county to determine what might be built on the lot near their condo, as recommended in their contract.

"We didn't do any of the things people are supposed to do" before purchasing the unit, she said.

Thomas P. Carbo, the hearing examiner, is scheduled to make his ruling June 5.

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