Tower dispute taking its toll

`My life is on hold,' one woman testifies before Planning Board

April 20, 2007|BY A SUN REPORTER

Joan Abdallah's message is simple: "My life is on hold."

She is in limbo because a proposed luxury high-rise in downtown Columbia, where she had hoped to live, is also on hold.

While many people see the fight over the development in terms of height and legalities and deceptions, Abdallah illustrates the personal toll extracted by the controversy.

"I have been immobilized by a very small group of opponents," she testified before the Howard County Planning Board on two proposals by County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty aimed at retroactively scuttling the high-rise.

Fifteen months ago, the board approved a site development plan by the developer, WCI Communities Inc., to build The Plaza Residences at Columbia Town Center, a 275-foot-tall tower that would include 160 luxury condominiums and ground-level retail shops. The county has issued all necessary building permits.

The project, Abdallah said, was "an answer to a dream." She reserved a unit, sold her home and waited.

Abdallah, a former teacher and principal, said she has been "sucked into a political morass." She added, "... Our lives and our visions are on hold."

An estimated 250 people attended the meeting Tuesday night, with more than 80 of them wishing to testify. The speakers were passionate, sometimes eloquent and always pointed. But it is doubtful that a single mind was changed. If nothing else, the testimony reflected the polarization of the community caused by the multimillion-dollar development.

"How can businesses ever hope to attract investors to projects that can be overturned by the whim of the vocal minority in concert with regulations that encourage, even reward, obstinacy and the refusal to accept that there may be competing priorities and interests?" said Steven W. Sachs, a county resident. " ... The people of Columbia and Howard County are very ill served by a government that would capitulate to the pressures of a small group when so much of our future is at stake."

Steven Meskin of Columbia urged enactment of Sigaty's proposals.

He dismissed warnings that approval would be harmful to the county's business climate and growth, which he characterized as "exaggerations of disaster by this Chamber of Commerce."

Meskin was referring to the Howard County business group, which mobilized the business community to oppose the zoning changes.

Sigaty is seeking approval of two zoning amendments. The first would impose a height limit of 150 feet, about 14 stories, and smaller if a final plan for converting downtown Columbia into an urban center is more restrictive. The other would render any formal decision and order by the Planning Board as "pending" and not final if approval of a project were challenged through the county's regulatory process or the courts.

Both are directed at the high-rise and the provisions would be imposed on WCI retroactively.

The skirmishing is taking place while private discussions are under way with WCI on a compromise to settle the controversy that has persisted for more than a year.

The talks are being spearheaded by Douglas M. Godine, vice president and general manager of Mid-Atlantic operations for General Growth Properties Inc., the principal landowner in Columbia, and County Executive Ken Ulman.

The offer includes moving the site of the tower less than a half-mile from Wincopin Circle, just off Little Patuxent Parkway, to the lower or upper level of what now are parking lots on the south side of GGP's regional headquarters, and reducing the height of the project to between 23 and 14 stories, but perhaps close to 18.

L. Earl Armiger, founder and chief executive officer of Orchard Development Corp., said the proposed zoning changes are "ill-conceived legislation." He added, "It is not good planning to start with limitations."

But Marvin Lawson, a Columbia resident of 19 years, said that while he supports increased density in downtown Columbia, "I do not believe that you necessarily have to have a high-rise to have a vibrant downtown."

He echoed the sentiments of several tower opponents by claiming the approval of WCI's project was illegal and violated county regulations.

Attorney E. Alexander Adams, who represents four clients opposed to the tower, has filed a lawsuit against the county's approval of the project. At the heart of the challenge is the contention that county regulations "constitute an unlawful delegation" of authority by allowing the Planning Board to determine the height of buildings in downtown Columbia. Either the Zoning Board or County Council, he asserts, must make such decisions.

The four opponents also claim that the number of residential units approved for development vastly exceeds that permitted in downtown Columbia.

County officials have said the tower complies with all regulations and that there is no legal basis on which to reverse approval of the project.

The meeting Tuesday was very likely a dry run because Sigaty's proposals would also face hearings before the council, at which time many of the same people probably will say the same things.

The Planning Board will resume its meeting May 24.

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