Residents lose `infill' fight

Board rules against Ellicott City group seeking more open space


Residents of an Ellicott City neighborhood battling to force a developer to build fewer new homes on a disputed 3-acre lot lost a round at a Board of Appeals hearing this week.

The members of the St. John's Manor community wanted the county to require developer Harmony Builders Inc. to devote nearly a third of the land to open space to retain forest, limiting the number of new homes that could be built.

But the board sided with the planning department's decision to allow the developer to meet forest-conservation requirements by using other options, like planting trees elsewhere or paying the county a fee.

Because of the Board of Appeals' unanimous decision Wednesday, the planning department can continue its strict interpretation of state and county regulations, which means the department may not demand more than the minimum requirement for open space from such a development, dubbed "infill."

The case affects the roughly 140 current infill applications in Howard County. It could lead to a policy change that would allow the planning department to require more than the minimum open space on such lots.

The dispute - among six neighbors, the developer and the planning department - centered on the 9010 Manordale Lane lot off St. John's Lane. The neighbors wanted the planning department to make the developer put 0.93 acres of open space on the lot to fulfill forest retention. That would limit the number of houses he could build. The builder wants to plant trees elsewhere or pay a fee so he can build more.

"It's kind of been a shock because it seems so illogical for the county to allow the maximum development as opposed to balancing it with the neighborhood and what's already existing," said Marika Sniscak, a neighbor who attended the hearing.

But during deliberation, the five-member Board of Appeals said the developer meets all requirements for forest conservation, which would allow building five new homes instead of the three that residents want.

"This is a relief for us," said Christopher Brown, owner of the Ellicott City-based Harmony Builders.

It is unclear when construction would begin, Brown said, but it could take six to eight months for his company to submit a new plan for the property and for the planning department to approve it.

Cindy Hamilton, chief of the planning department's Division of Land Development, has said the county zoning board could change regulations to allow the department to require that open space meet forest-retention requirements on an infill.

"If people don't like this, then somewhere down the road, this is going to have to be changed to a law, but in this case, [the developer] is meeting all the regulations," board member Pat Patterson said during deliberation.

Infill has become a point of resentment for older residents who see larger new homes crowded onto small, often difficult-to-develop lots in their neighborhoods.

However, this type of construction is encouraged by Smart Growth - Maryland's sprawl-fighting policy to steer construction toward built-up areas with existing infrastructure.

Howard County policy is to keep about 60 percent of the county rural - without public water and sewers - and most development within the remaining 40 percent.

The neighbors of the Manordale property have spent more than $15,000 in legal fees since 2002 when Harmony Builders bought the lot.

While their legal argument depended on the open space requirement, they have voiced other concerns about the development, including potential erosion and drainage problems the proposed construction might cause.

"The construction would be on a steep slope that has a lot of trees absorbing moisture; taking those trees down and covering it with concrete will bring down more drainage," said Sniscak, whose land covers both sides of a stream. "It will erode my property, which is on both sides of the creek ... it means I'm losing my land."

Neighbors might take the case to court.

"We'll have to talk to the others to decide if the men in the black robes get to hear the case or not," said neighbor Barb Flinn, who attended the hearing with a few other community members. "Part of it depends on what type of fundraising we can do."

The residents have 30 days to file a court appeal after the Board of Appeals files its ruling in writing, which can take up to 60 days.

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