Tower appeal delayed a month

More witnesses are slated to testify on high-rise approved for downtown Columbia

December 20, 2006|by a sun reporter

The fight over the proposed luxury skyscraper in downtown Columbia resembles a poor adaptation of the movie Groundhog Day.

The same questions are asked by the same people and - with rare exceptions - of the same people, and the goals remain the same. Even the room is unchanged from where two previous exhaustive hearings were held and each with the same result - clearance for the construction of a 23-story, multimillion-dollar residential and retail tower.

This time, the issue is before the county Board of Appeals, and, regardless of how it rules, virtually everyone expects the next stop to be Circuit Court, where the matter will be replayed with the same questions and answers and personalities.

After a second evening of testimony and skirmishing Monday, the board continued the case until Jan. 17, although it is unclear if the hearing will conclude then because there are at least six more witnesses to be questioned and cross-examined.

Board Chairman Robert Sharps is trying to expedite the hearing, frequently admonishing both sides to cease what he perceives as delays, posturing and, at times, bickering. But the hearing has consumed eight hours, and it seems likely to require half that again.

The fight now is limited to whether the four county residents who are contesting approval of the tower have legal standing to do so. The law requires that they were parties to the hearings conducted earlier by the Planning Board and that they demonstrate they would be "specially aggrieved," or harmed more than the general public, by construction of the building.

E. Alexander Adams, an attorney representing the opponents to the tower, on Monday attacked a study that concluded that the 160-unit condominium development would cause no adverse traffic in the area, including at the residential Lakeside at Town Center development across the street from the proposed skyscraper and where two of his clients - Jo Ann Stolley and Joel Broida - reside.

"We're all familiar with the logjams that are out there today," Adams said, suggesting construction of the tower will result in significantly more traffic congestion.

"It's a snapshot that does not account for each and every day of the year," Adams said of the traffic study.

Mickey Cornelius, senior vice president of The Traffic Group, said the study, which was prepared by Wells & Associates LLC, "used very conservative numbers" and said there is no evidence the tower will have a noticeable impact on traffic.

Attorneys representing the developer, Florida-based WCI Communities Inc., sought to show that the value of those residents' units would appreciate, not decline, because of the tower.

"The tower will positively impact the prices of Lakeside," said Mary E. McGinnis, a principal with Benchmark Appraisal Group LLC.

She said that seven units at Lakeside have been resold since the development opened last year and that generally they have appreciated in value, even though it is widely known that WCI plans to build the 275-foot-tall tower across the street. In one case, McGinnis said, a unit that originally cost $361,000 resold for $416,000.

Another unit, she testified, cost $390,000 and resold for $400,000.

Adams, though, noted that the unit had twice been resold and that its original price was $418,000.

McGinnis said the real estate market had been overheated and it is now making a "correction" and returning to normal.

She also said that Lakeside residents would not be encumbered in selling their units even while the tower is under construction, which McGinnis estimated would take 18 months to two years to complete.

"A prudent buyer will know that this is a temporary situation," she said.

WCI's development, where penthouses will sell for more than $2 million, will enhance the area, she said.

Before the case may proceed, Adams must win a favorable ruling from the Board of Appeals that at least one of his four clients has legal standing. Without that, the board will not hear the broader issues in his appeal.

He claims that in approving the tower, the Planning Board unlawfully permitted residential uses on the property that was zoned commercial.

His appeal also alleges that county regulations "constitute an unlawful delegation" of authority by allowing the Planning Board to determine the height of buildings in downtown Columbia, and that the number of residential units approved for development vastly exceeds that permitted downtown.

Attorneys for WCI are focusing on trying to end the proceedings by challenging the legal standings of the four opponents.

Stolley, they said Monday, chose to sign a contract for her Lakeside condo even after being informed that other developments were possible on nearby property. Nor did she review county records on what was permitted on adjacent land, they said.

"You chose not to do it. In fact, you didn't do any of the things that you were told to do," said S. Scott Morrison of the Washington firm Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP.

Stolley acknowledged that, but she said she knows of no one who would investigate land-use issues before buying a home.

The two other opponents in the case - Stephen Meskin and Lloyd Knowles - are expected to be questioned when the hearing resumes next month.

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