Planning Board lets Turf Valley decision stand

September 03, 2006|by a sun reporter

It took the Planning Board 25 minutes to consult with its attorney behind closed doors, but fewer than 90 seconds to then formally decline to reconsider its approval this year of the planned expansion of Turf Valley.

The decision Thursday night was not a surprise. After conducting hearings that stretched over six months and often were heated and contained attacks on the board's integrity, few believed the board would reopen the case.

Three board members voted not to reopen the case, while a fourth, Gary Rosenbaum, abstained because he joined the board after the hearings on Turf Valley were concluded.

Board member Linda A. Dombrowski said the panel no longer has jurisdiction because the case has been appealed, and thus could not reconsider the matter.

The day was not a complete loss for opponents of Turf Valley's expansion. Earlier, Circuit Court Judge Lenora Gelfman ordered the county to immediately remove all obstacles in making files on Turf Valley available to the public.

The Planning Board's decision was greeted with sharply divergent responses.

"It was the right thing to do. There wasn't much to think about," said Louis Mangione, vice president of Mangione Family Enterprises, the owner and developer of Turf Valley.

Frank Martin, the chief spokesman for the opponents, said, "Clearly, they have the authority and the jurisdiction to hear this. They abdicated their fiduciary responsibility."

He blamed the outcome on "lack of intelligent advice" from the county's Office of Law, and said the Planning Board "is completely out of control."

Turf Valley is a planned community off U.S. 40 at the western edge of Ellicott City. The development consists of two 18-hole golf courses, a hotel and resort center and homes. Commercial, retail and additional housing are planned for the project, which was first approved about 25 years ago.

The controversy stems from the Planning Board's approval in March of the developer's fourth comprehensive sketch plan, which, among other things, expanded Turf Valley to about 808 acres by adding 119.7 acres and permitting the construction of an additional 239 housing units, for a total of 1,618.

In response, opponents of the plan have attacked on several fronts. They have taken the case to the Board of Appeals and have filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court.

In addition, an appeal has been filed of a state-approved permit affecting less than an acre of nontidal wetlands. The permit was sought for road improvements and installation of underground utility lines.

Seeking a review by the Appeals Board is aimed directly at the Planning Board's approval of the plan. But the lawsuit is a challenge not to the plan but to the county's regulations, which extend considerable authority to the appointed Planning Board for all property zoned PGGC, or planned golf course community. Turf Valley is the only development in the county with that zoning.

Martin said there has been a "complete breakdown in the Department of Planning and Zoning and Office of Law to function as governmental units. ... The absurd nature of this whole process is appalling."

Mangione said the opponents "have never specified what they want." He has accused them in the past of trying to delay the project by dredging up any issue that is convenient. He said their appeals and lawsuits are "costing the county and taxpayers money. A lot of money."

Martin expressed pleasure with the court's ruling Thursday, but he said, "It's absurd that I have to take the extraordinary step of going to court for something that they should simply do."

The county initially announced that a Freedom of Information Act request would have to be filed before the public could review the Turf Valley files. Then the policy was modified, requiring only an appointment to better manager employees' time.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said the county never intended to restrict access to public documents and information.

Because the case is being challenged in court, "we want everyone to have the same facts," she said. "It's not that people can't get information. ... They will still get what they want. We're just trying to control [the process] so that everyone gets the same thing."

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