Zoning case, public-water boundary tied

Morsberger property hearing is continued until next month

June 23, 2006|BY A SUN REPORTER

It seems like such a simple question: What are the boundaries for public water and sewer services?

There is no absence of answers, but, amazingly, there is sharp disagreement as to whether there is an irrefutable one.

And, even more astonishingly, the quest for the one, unassailable answer has dogged Howard County for at least six years.

A lot is at stake: The ability of a property owner to sell his land for a premium, a proposed multimillion-dollar housing development, the character of the largely rural western region of the county and the integrity of top county officials and their departments.

The Zoning Board was the latest to get pulled into the dispute, but after almost three hours of testimony Wednesday night, it surprised both sides by abruptly continuing the hearing until next month.

The board met to consider an application to rezone 13.48 acres. But, it appears, the outcome will be decided largely on whether the board rules that the county has or has not extended public water and sewer to the area.

The property fronts Old Frederick Road, just west of Marriottsville Road, close to Alpha Ridge Park, and is owned by Chris Morsberger.

If the rezoning -- from rural conservation to residential -- is approved, the land would be sold to developer Donald R. Reuwer Jr., who plans to build about 20 single-family homes there.

The rezoning was approved last year, but that case and dozens of others were put on hold because of a referendum challenging all actions approved during what is commonly referred to as Comp Lite. The referendum is on the November ballot.

To free the property from the referendum, the Zoning Board must determine that the character of the neighborhood has changed significantly, or that the County Council erred in not reclassifying the property two years ago during its comprehensive rezoning process, or both.

The opposing sides concur that if the property is within the planned service area, it should be rezoned for higher density residential use.

That said, they then diverge diametrically on the answer to that question.

Ralph Ballman of Ellicott City insists the evidence is on his side. He produced a 2-inch-thick binder with maps, transcripts of hearings, correspondence and other documents to bolster his claim that the Morsberger property is outside the county's planned service area.

He also accused Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, of misrepresenting the facts for having earlier declared that the property had qualified for water and sewer since adoption of the 1990 general plan.

Ballman applied the "Where's the Beef?" test. "If [the property] was included in the planned service area, where's the resolution that did it?" he asked the board.

Reuwer said the evidence supports him. He noted, for instance, that the county's general plan designates the area as part of the planned service area; that the latest capital budget includes funds for the Department of Public Works to extend lines to the Morsberger property and others; and that Paul T. Johnson, deputy county solicitor, verified in writing that the property is within the service area.

"Mr. Ballman and his group are very good at confusing" the issue, Reuwer said.

Ballman has championed the cause since 2000, when he learned of another property in the area seeking rezoning to residential.

He has since then given essentially the same presentation numerous times before the County Council and planning and zoning boards. Council members also sit as the Zoning Board.

Board member Charles C. Feaga displayed weariness at Ballman's presentation by telling him: "We know the history. ... Are you trying to see how long you can drag this out?"

The hearing is scheduled to resume July 5, at which time attorney Michael Tanczyn said he will call three other witnesses who will testify against the rezoning.

Attorney Richard B. Talkin is representing the Morsberger application.

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