HarborView wins height fight

Housing official says 58-foot rule not violated, despite neighborhood protests

September 03, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,sun reporter

In a blow to a coalition of Baltimore community leaders who say penthouses atop the Pier Homes at HarborView violate height limits and should come down, a city housing officer has affirmed her department's decision to allow the developer to continue building rooftop structures at the luxury waterfront project.

Although neighborhood groups argued at an Aug. 4 hearing that the penthouses - with stairways, elevators and sinks - are more like living space than shelter for mechanical equipment and are in violation of the city's 58-foot height limit, hearing officer Jan Goslee declared the rooftop structures in compliance.

"I ... find that the City's approval of the ... permits to allow rooftop structures or penthouses that are higher than 58 feet is consistent with the provisions of the Key Highway Urban Renewal Plan and not arbitrary," Goslee wrote in a 25-page opinion released late Friday.

HarborView developer Richard A. Swirnow applauded the decision yesterday.

"We are gratified that the Baltimore Housing Authority has upheld what we have always known: That we have never violated any law governing the development of HarborView," Swirnow said in a statement released through RedZone, a crisis-management public relations firm. "And we have never built anything other than what has been specifically reviewed and approved."

But Paul W. Robinson, president of the Friends of Federal Hill Park, one of the association's challenging HarborView, said yesterday the decision disturbingly demonstrates how the city's land-use laws are open to convenient interpretation.

"I'm having a hard time getting my head around how terms like `58 feet' are ambiguous enough to require interpretation," he said. "Something's broken here.

"City Council has to really step up to the plate and acknowledge that one unelected official has the power to essentially void some pretty clear restrictions on height and view corridors."

Robinson said he and his co-appellants will now decide whether to appeal the decision to city Circuit Court.

The clash between HarborView and the community, brewing for some time, escalated in June when the city's housing commissioner issued a stop-work order on the Pier Homes because the penthouses put them about 4 feet over the 58-foot limit.

The South Baltimore area's urban renewal plan exempts rooftop structures from height constraints, but only those that house mechanical equipment. Swirnow has been advertising penthouses with wet bars.

For more than a year before the stop-work order, as the developer continued building the 88-townhouse development, Robinson and other Federal Hill activists tried fruitlessly to get city planning and housing officials and Mayor Martin O'Malley to address the problem.

Even as Swirnow defied the stop-work order and an ensuing cease-and-desist order, officials forced him to shrink the penthouses, get rid of the wet bars and pay $10,000 for new permits to reflect the changes. They allowed him, however, to continue installing elevators, staircases and small sinks.

Believing elevators and sinks were as illegal as the wet bars, the activists appealed - prompting last month's hearing, which filled a city hearing room and lasted nearly 10 hours.

They hoped they could stop Swirnow from building more penthouses and force him to remove ones he had already built.

But Goslee decided that the city's building and zoning codes, which allow elevators and stairs, trump the urban renewal plan.

"I'm disappointed," John Murphy, the community group's attorney, said yesterday. "We thought the ordinance was clear. And we don't think [rules] should just be `interpreted' away."

City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, who represents South Baltimore, said yesterday that he will draft legislation to give the council, rather than housing or planning officials, authority on certain kinds of land-use appeals.

"I think planning was in error here. I think [housing] was in error. And I think the decision made by the hearing officer was incorrect," Reisinger said. "We're leaving issues of design and height and location to bureaucracy."

Swirnow said the penthouses "enhance and complete the beautiful architecture."

"Now it is time for the small group of naysayers to join with us and all of our neighbors and continue to make our community - and our City - as great as we all know it can be," the developer said in his statement.

Robinson said he found Swirnow's assessment of the situation "offensive."

"This is not about a small group of naysayers. This is about a very large group of concerned citizens," he said. "He can blow smoke and call people naysayers, but ... we won't be letting him off the hook."


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