A view too costly

July 16, 2006

The million-dollar views from Richard A. Swirnow's waterfront Pier Homes development are coming at a price - a diminished view for the public. The developer has worked along the Inner Harbor since the late 1980s, but his latest project shows what can happen when developers flagrantly violate local zoning rules and city officials don't properly police them. For nearly a year, nearby residents complained to city officials about the problem - to no avail. City Planning Director Otis Rolley III's excuse that he was snowed under in paperwork is inexcusable. This is no way to conduct the public's business.

Anyone driving past the South Baltimore townhouse complex that is rising on the site of old shipyard piers can see the offending structures - roof pop-tops that HarborView Properties advertised as "penthouses" with wet bars. All that was permitted under the law was a structure for mechanical equipment. Last month, the city finally issued a stop-work order, but the building continued until the city issued a cease-and-desist order.

Part of the blame lies with the city: Planning officials opposed the penthouse-wet bar option, but their objection was written on a Post-it and overlooked by housing officials.

With corrective action now taken, construction has resumed. But the city has implemented only token reforms to ensure the problem won't occur again; it also required the developer to pay $10,000 in amended permitting fees because of the error.

In the midst of a development boom, the city cannot let a flagrant violation go by and say, "We'll get them next time." Several Federal Hill neighborhood groups feel the same way and have appealed the amended permits for the development; they want the offending penthouses torn down.

That would be a strong but impractical action at this late stage. Instead, the city should hit HarborView with a hefty fine for violating the stop-work order. The city's practice to date, however, has been much more tepid. Since January 1999, the Department of Housing and Community Development has issued 1,993 fines, totaling $517,138, on projects of less than $1 million . Only one big developer - HarborView - has been fined in that time, records show.

If developers are going to overreach, the city can't be weak-kneed in its enforcement. It should punish serious violators to maintain the integrity of the process, keep developers in line, and ensure respect for the concerns of the community.

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