Another tower appeal is likely

Attorney for the foes of proposed luxury building in Columbia says, `It's 90% definite'

July 21, 2006|BY A SUN REPORTER

It appears virtually certain that another legal challenge will be launched against the proposed luxury residential and retail tower in downtown Columbia.

If that bid fails, though, it could be the final act in the effort to prevent construction of the multimillion-dollar, 22-story complex overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi.

The opponents suffered a major setback last month when a hearing examiner ruled they lacked legal standing to contest the tower.

E. Alexander Adams, the attorney representing opponents, said a final decision has not been made, but he added, "I think we're going to appeal. ... It's 90 percent definite that we will appeal."

The appeal, if it is filed, would be over the narrow point of legal standing of the opponents. That hurdle, though, must be overcome before the heart of their case -- whether the county illegally approved the development -- can be pursued.

If opponents suffer another defeat on legal standing, it could force them to abandon the case because of the costs involved in fighting the development in court.

It also seems likely that the appeal would be filed on behalf of only two of Adams' clients, not the four who initially brought the case against the county.

The case apparently will hinge on whether county residents Joel Broida and Jo Ann Stolley satisfy the legal requirements to challenge the Planning Board's approval this year of the tower.

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 would.

Adams believes that it will be easier to argue before the Board of Appeals that Stolley and Broida meet those standards, in part, because both live in the Lakeside at Town Center condominium development across the street from where the tower would be constructed.

Broida also participated in the hearings conducted by the Planning Board. Stolley entered the picture late, on the day the board approved the development, and as a party to a motion filed by Adams alleging that the board acted illegally when it approved amendments to regulations to permit residential uses on property previously restricted primarily for commercial development.

The board never acted on that motion, raising the question of whether Stolley technically was a party to the board's hearings.

Hearing Examiner Thomas P. Carbo ruled June 12 that Stolley and Broida and two other appellants failed to meet county and state requirements for legal standing. Adams is awaiting Carbo's written decision and order before deciding whether to challenge that ruling.

The developer, Florida-based WCI Communities Inc., intends to construct the Plaza Residences, a 275-foot tower that would include retail shops and 160 condominiums on 22 stories, with prices beginning in the $600,000s and topping $2 million for penthouses.

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

The appeal to Carbo, and the expected one to the Appeals Board, though, has failed to reach the crux of Adams' case: that the zoning for the tower is illegal, and thus the $70 million development cannot be constructed.

"Such approval ... was and is ultra vires," or illegal for going beyond the board's jurisdiction, Adams said in documents filed with Carbo.

No issue has been more contentious than the height of the tower, which at 275 feet would be the tallest structure in the county and far surpass any other building in downtown Columbia.

Richard B. Talkin, an attorney representing the developer, has argued that the Planning Board was within its jurisdiction when it approved the largely residential skyscraper and noted that county regulations include no height limitations for the downtown area.

The appellants, Adams said, are "not happy about how the county has allowed the developer to come in and change the plan [zoning] without an appropriate opportunity from the public to comment."

"The county," he added, "has blatantly not followed its own regulations ... for this type" of residential development.

Adams declined to say how much an appeal of Carbo's decision would cost, but he said it would easily top several thousand dollars.

There are many county residents, Adams said, who would be willing to contribute because of their concerns over what he described as the county's close relationship with developers and the scope of WCI's project.

The Department of Planning and Zoning, which supports the development, has said the developer has met all county regulations and there is no legal basis for the county to prevent the tower or its size.

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