Tower appeal fails in court

Judge says residents lack standing to fight Columbia plan

June 14, 2006|BY A SUN REPORTER

Tower appeal dropped by judge Round 1 went convincingly to the developer.

The question now is, will the fight continue?

At stake is the The Plaza Residences, a multimillion-dollar residential and retail tower planned for downtown Columbia.

The project, already approved by the county, received another boost Monday when Hearing Examiner Thomas P. Carbo dismissed a challenge to the development brought by four county residents.

The decision capped three days of hearings in quasi-judicial proceedings, which were limited to oral arguments on whether the residents had legal standing to contest the project.

Carbo ruled that none of the four met the requirements set by county regulations and Maryland law to raise a legal challenge to the luxury tower.

"He correctly upheld the law," said S. Scott Morrison, one of two attorneys representing the developer. "We expected this ruling because the law is so clear. ... We were very confident. It's the correct decision."

The developer, Florida-based WCI Communities Inc., intends to construct The Plaza Residences overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi. The 23-story, 275-foot tower will include ground-level retail shops and 160 condominiums on 22 stories, with prices beginning in the $600,000s and reaching $2 million and more for penthouses.

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

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

Four county residents - Stephen Meskin, Lloyd Knowles, Joel Broida and Jo Ann Stolley - appealed the Planning Board's approval, hoping to scuttle the $70 million project.

Knowles described the ruling as another "example of Howard County planning running amok."

He added, "We'll probably do something" to challenge the ruling.

The four residents were represented by attorney E. Alexander Adams. He said repeatedly that the challenge to his clients' legal standing was designed to prevent an examination of broader legal questions he intended to raise.

At the heart of the case, Adams said, was the Planning Board's approval four years ago of WCI's final development plan by amending regulations to permit residential uses on property previously restricted primarily to commercial development.

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

But the developer's attorneys, Morrison and Richard B. Talkin, thwarted testimony on that issue by successfully contending that none of the appellants had legal standing to raise the challenge.

To have legal standing, the appellants must have participated in the Planning Board's case and also show that they are "specially aggrieved," meaning that they would be adversely affected more than the general public.

Talkin argued earlier that Knowles resides 1.8 miles from the site of the proposed tower and that distance prevented him from being affected by the project. Meskin lives 1,400 feet from the property, but under cross-examination acknowledged that most days during the year he would be unable to see the Tower from his property.

Stolley lacked jurisdiction to challenge the Planning Board's decision, Talkin said, because she was not a party to the board's proceedings. And Broida, who claimed he feared 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, real estate experts testified.

Stolley and Broida purchased condominium units across the street from where WCI intends to build its tower. Both said they feared the skyscraper also would harm their views.

Talkin, in oral arguments Monday, said that the evidence was so overwhelming that the "conclusion is unmistakable" that the residents failed to meet the standards for legal standing.

To rule otherwise, he said, would mean "that the concept of standing may be meaningless. It is clear to us that they have no legal standing."

Adams argued that the courts have ruled "that when there is a question of illegality, the threshold for standing is lower."

He said if his clients, particularly Stolley and Broida, can't challenge the project, "then tell me who can. ... Citizens should have the right to question government decisions."

But Carbo rejected his arguments. "View is the major issue" for Stolley and Broida, the hearing examiner said. But to be specially aggrieved, he ruled, they "must be able to show an economic impact."

The opposition may appeal Carbo's ruling to the Board of Appeals or Circuit Court. Although an appeal seems likely, a decision has not been made. The group has 45 days after Carbo files his written decision and order.

Adams had said earlier that an appeal was probable if his clients lost this round.

But Morrison, of the Washington firm of Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, said, "I hope they don't, because the result won't be any different. It will only delay a project that would be great for Columbia."

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