The community activists who forced a luxury homebuilder to stop offering rooftop "penthouses" with wet bars at his latest waterfront project will face off against HarborView today at a hearing that could determine what kind of rooftop treats the developer can offer his well-heeled buyers .
If the activists have their way, it will be none at all, other than plain roofs with their obvious expensive views.
If HarborView prevails, it will be scaled-down penthouses that continue to offer elevator landings and enclosed stairways.
It all comes down to the interpretation of seemingly clear-cut city law.
Across Baltimore, as homeowners increasingly insist on making the most of their rooftop space, the issue of what is permitted on those roofs has long been a problem for officials whose job is to construe the code.
David C. Tanner, executive director of the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, who spends almost all of his time ruling on such development headaches, is glad that this predicament is someone else's to resolve.
"Luckily," he said yesterday with a laugh, "I don't have to get involved in that one."
The controversy over the Pier Homes at HarborView, million-dollar properties under construction along the South Baltimore waterfront, came to a boil in June when the city's housing commissioner issued a stop-work order because the penthouses put the homes about four feet over the 58-foot limit.
The rules governing construction in that area permit penthouse-style structures, but they are supposed to house only mechanical equipment, not wet bars such as the ones HarborView was advertising and possibly not even stairways and elevators, which is what the activists maintain.
As developer Richard A. Swirnow defied the stop-work order and the ensuing cease-and-desist order, city officials forced him to shrink the penthouses, abandon the wet bars and pay $10,000 for new permits that show the changes.
The activists immediately appealed, contending that HarborView should dismantle the penthouses.
The result is today's hearing.
With much at stake for both parties, each has invested a great deal of energy and money.
The Federal Hill activists, retired Sun editor James S. Keat and Paul Robinson, president of a chain of small radio stations, spent more than a year trying to convince city planning and housing officials of the Pier Home violations.
They have enlisted the support of community leaders from other neighborhoods - including Canton, Mount Vernon and Riverside - and have hired attorney John Murphy, who has built a reputation for challenging city development matters.
Robinson, who has paid for much of the cost of the litigation, recently appealed by e-mail to hundreds of area residents to contribute to the cause, writing, "The City has left us no legal recourse other than Public Hearings as a means of obtaining a valid rationale for apparently ignoring the illegal activities of an influential developer."
Motivating the activists, Robinson said, are a desire to protect the views from Federal Hill Park and a hope of preventing developers from bending city laws to suit their needs.
Swirnow also has gone for big-name legal talent, hiring David W. Kinkopf, the attorney handling the Archdiocese of Baltimore's efforts to demolish the 100-year-old Rochambeau apartment building.
HarborView also hired Redzone, a crisis-management public relations firm that is assisting BettyJean Murphy, the Baltimore developer who is holding on to $1 million she made from selling a building the city gave her to convert into low-income housing, even though after 10 years she has never done the work.
Neither HarborView officials nor Kinkopf returned calls yesterday, but the company issued a statement through Redzone.
"We anticipate that we will get a fair hearing," the statement says. "HarborView's counsel will present the truth: Everything built or to be built fully meets all existing regulations. And everything built or to be built meets the highest standards for design, construction and safety."
Today's hearing is likely to dwell on what the urban renewal ordinance for the Key Highway area allows on roofs and how tall buildings can be. The ordinance is supposed to be the final word on building rules, trumping the city's general zoning code.
The arguments will center on three rules in the ordinance that are stated clearly yet diverge. They read:
The roof of any structure shall not exceed 58 feet.
Rooftop mechanical equipment may exceed the maximum elevations, as approved by [the housing commissioner].
Questions regarding the standards within the ordinance or the interpretation of them will be decided by the housing commissioner.
City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, who represents South Baltimore, said yesterday that the only fair outcome would be for HarborView to take down all of the penthouses, which he said he would do if he had "a magic wand."
"It's a shame it's going to cost them $10,000 or more to fight this and it's all already in the ordinance," the councilman said.
The activists offered to drop the appeal if Swirnow would agree to eliminate penthouses on the unbuilt units, seek no further variances from the urban renewal ordinance and reimburse the activists for their legal fees.
When Robinson floated the proposed compromise to Paul T. Graziano, the city housing commissioner, this week, Graziano responded in an e-mail: "I think it is best if we proceed with the hearing."