Ulman wants deal on Plaza

Compromise sought while height limit gains support

February 21, 2007|By Larry Carson and Tyrone Richardson | Larry Carson and Tyrone Richardson,sun reporters

The long fight over whether a proposed 23-story tower should be allowed in Town Center is coming to a head as Howard County officials try to spur a compromise or, if that fails, impose a height limit of about 14 stories through new zoning regulations.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said he is pushing all parties in the dispute to reach a consensus "soon" on The Plaza Residences at Columbia Town Center.

At the same time, County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, has submitted two proposed zoning changes that would limit the height of any Town Center building to no more than 150 feet - equaling 14 or 15 stories - and change the county's grandfathering provisions to allow the height limit to retroactively cover the tower.

A group of four citizens opposed to the height of the tower is appealing county approvals for the 275-foot high-rise, although the builder, WCI Communities Inc., has all three building permits it needs to start construction.

"I'm actively engaged in discussions with all parties," Ulman said, and "I'm hopeful all parties will come together and compromise."

If a compromise is not reached, Ulman said, he would back Sigaty's measures. As a candidate last fall, Ulman vowed to block construction of the tower building, if elected.

"I'm hopeful it won't come to that," Ulman said about Sigaty's proposals. He is worried about the message to the business community..

"Everyone knows the urgency and the significance of the issue," Ulman said.

Sigaty said she, too, would like to see an agreement, but added that her zoning proposals also serve a purpose. "This allows the public process to go forward," she said.

Douglas M. Godine, vice president and general manager of General Growth Properties, Inc., Columbia's developer, said he has been trying to mediate a compromise between WCI and protesting residents, so far without success.

But Godine said General Growth also objects to a 150-foot height limit, even as an interim measure, because it could influence the final downtown Columbia plan.

"I think right now we should be open to all kinds of discussions as to building heights," he said.

Officials at WCI had no comment yesterday.

The first of Sigaty's proposals would impose an interim 150-foot height limit, preventing new high-rise towers until a complete plan for redeveloping central Columbia is adopted. The second measure, according to Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director, would apply the height limit to any proposed building under appeal.

McLaughlin said planning staff members will examine Sigaty's requests and make written recommendations to the county Planning Board. The board then will discuss and vote on whether to recommend the changes to the County Council - a process that could take several more months.

"I think it's what we expected to see. It comes down to the grandfathering issue," McLaughlin said. "There are folks who feel passionately on both sides."

The retail and residential tower has been delayed for more than a year by residents' appeals. Attorneys for WCI are seeking a Circuit Court ruling to dismiss an appeal by four citizens of the Planning Board's approval of the project. The county Board of Appeals, which was asked by four residents to overturn the approval, has suspended further action on the issue until the court rules.

The building is to include street-level shops and 160 residential condominiums, which would sell for $600,000 to $2 million each.

Because the request to build the tower was made before the start of the public planning process on Columbia's downtown redevelopment, it was not included in that discussion. Columbia's zoning has no limit on building heights, but the tallest structures now are about 14 stories.

Other County Council members are hoping for a negotiated settlement, said Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. She supports a height limit.

West Columbia Del. Elizabeth Bobo, whose husband, Lloyd Knowles, is one of four residents who appealed to block the project, said she heartily agrees with a 150-foot height limit. "From Day 1, the Plaza should have been part of the planning process."

"She'll get a lot of support from the community," Bobo said of Sigaty.

larry.carson@baltsun.com tyrone.richardson@baltsun.com

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