Public's support of rezoning called vital

Lawyers, officials say the level of backing a project receives often helps decide its outcome

May 28, 2006|BY A SUN REPORTER

In a span of one week, rezoning for a large development was approved, while it was rejected for a far more modest project. But there was a fundamental difference between the two: their level of public support.

The importance of that backing is evident to decision-makers, especially in an atmosphere in which rezoning is under relentless assault from many quarters, rendering politicians skittish, particularly in an election year.

"I think it can be critically important to have public support," says William E. Erskine, one of two attorneys on the winning side of one case and the losing end of the other. "I'm not saying you cannot get what you want without it, but if you have it, it can be so much easier."

Indeed, the easy approval last week by the Zoning Board of a petition to reclassify 50 acres in Ellicott City for a multimillion-dollar senior housing and care development was credited, in part, to broad public embrace of the project.

To underscore the point, Erskine's colleague, David A. Carney, called several residents to testify before building a case for the rezoning or laying out the details of the proposed Lutheran Village at Miller's Grant, a 299-unit project planned along Frederick Road, adjacent to the Charles E. Miller library and the county's senior center.

Illustrative of those witnesses was Diane Butler, president of the St. John's Community Association, who declared: "We have decided in favor of [the project]. ... They were very communicative with us. It's a wonderful boon for the area."

Such backing provides the county's elected officials and regulatory bodies with a cloak of comfort in approving rezoning for large developments, several participants in the process say.

"This is the best example of working with the community," said Christopher J. Merdon, moments before joining the five-member Zoning Board in unanimously approving the rezoning to clear the way for Miller's Grant.

Even the principal person behind the development acknowledged the value of the public's backing in winning approval.

"This is perfect. It's just been an overwhelming welcoming experience," said Geary K. Milliken, president and chief executive officer of a similar senior village in Westminster and who is spearheading the project in Ellicott City. "Howard County, governmental officials and the neighborhood associations have all been so supportive."

Likewise, the lack of public backing in the second example -- the rezoning of about 28 acres in Elkridge -- played a critical role in the board's rejection a week earlier, say participants in the case.

Nancy Cavey, the administrator of the estate of her parents, Carroll and Ruth Braun, sought to rezone 14 acres from residential to planned office research and 13.4 acres to community center transition. She envisioned both residential and commercial development on the property.

That proposal, though, was doomed by the testimony of numerous nearby residents who opposed the commercial component.

"Whatever the public has to say, we want to hear that," says H. Gregory Tornatore, a member of the Planning Board, which previously had recommended approval of Miller's Grant but rejection of Cavey's rezoning. "But if it's solidly for, then it goes easier. ... We don't want to do something that's going to fly in the face of huge opposition."

Charles C. Feaga, the only member of the Zoning Board to support Cavey's rezoning, said there probably would have been a different outcome had there been a foundation of public support.

"It's so important for the people [developers] themselves to talk with the public and get their support," he says. "You'd be correct in saying it would have been approved, especially in an election year."

Technically, the cases are not supposed to be popularity contests but judged on their merits. But county officials, appointed and elected, often are persuaded more by the public's reactions.

Tornatore, for example, says he regards the appointed Planning Board as the "eyes and ears" of the public. And the Zoning Board is made up of the elected five-member County Council, whose members often are looking toward the next election.

Erskine, the attorney who represented Cavey and Miller's Grant, says he understands those dynamics. "When there is community opposition, it subjects the request to the strictest of scrutiny. The decision-makers really hold the petitioner to the highest standards," he says. "Those can be relaxed if there is broad public support. That's just the reality of it.

"I don't find that to be wrong because government represents the people, and government shouldn't thrust upon the people that which the people don't want. I don't find fault in that. ... Public opinion does, and should, play a role in land-use decisions. I don't find that to be inappropriate."

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