Opponents of a proposed 23-story tower in Columbia have won their first legal victory in more than two years with a decision by Maryland's second-highest court that could give them a chance to argue their case before the county appeals board.
The Court of Special Appeals ruling reverses a year-old Howard County Circuit Court decision and grants legal standing to Joel Broida, one of four residents who appealed the February 2006 decision to let the mixed-use tower planned by WCI Communities go forward. Barring review by the Maryland Court of Appeals, the case will return to the county board of appeals for a new hearing.
"Everybody assumed they [WCI] were going to win," E. Alexander Adams, the lawyer representing the residents, said yesterday. "This at least makes it, hopefully, a clean slate."
Broida, who lives in a building overlooking the vacant 1.46 acre lot, said, "I'm looking outside and there are Canada geese on [the lot] now. I'm quite pleased. It's taken a long time to get here."
Lloyd Knowles, another one of the original opponents, also expressed satisfaction with the decision, which was issued Wednesday but became public yesterday.
"That sort of makes my day," he said.
Officials and lawyers for WCI did not return phone and e-mail messages seeking comment yesterday.
The tower, designed to be 10 stories taller than Columbia's tallest structure, has been one of the most fractious issues in the county over the past few years. WCI has argued that the building would be an asset to the community, while some residents and politicians have complained the tower would ruin the town's ambience.
Discussion of a height limit on buildings in Columbia is expected to be one feature of a proposed revision of zoning rules for the town scheduled by county officials later this year.
Despite the critics, WCI won planning board approval and later obtained building permits for the $60 million structure described as one floor of retail stores under 22 stories of 160 luxury condominium apartments.
But as the long legal struggle continued in the background, the faltering economy has led to speculation that hard-hit WCI might never build the Renaissance building.
The lot, developed for construction last year, now sits vacant, and early buyers have had their deposits returned, though company officials have said repeatedly that they intend to build the tower.
But Adams and Broida said they are determined to pursue the legal case even if WCI backs out of the project.
"The property is still going to be sold to somebody," Broida said. "Somebody will want to develop it. They have to go through the process."
Adams agreed that WCI will want to defend the right to build on the land, if only to protect its investment.
The project started with the purchase of the tract in late 2004, but heated up with county planning board approval of the plan the next year.
Residents said that although Columbia's new town zoning doesn't have a height limit or require setbacks, there was not enough remaining land zoned residential in central Columbia to allow for the project.
But when the residents appealed board approval to the Board of Appeals, WCI said they had no legal standing.
The board unanimously agreed that three residents had no legal standing, but cast a tie vote, 2-2, on Broida's standing, because he lives in a building next to the tower site.
The developer took the matter to circuit court and won a dismissal of the residents' suit on the grounds that the tie vote meant that Broida lost because a majority of the board did not favor his position.
The Court of Special Appeals decision says the lower court was wrong.
County politicians were circumspect in their reactions yesterday.
"I haven't read it," County Executive Ken Ulman said about the court decision. "I respect the judicial process."
County Council member Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat who took over Ulman's old seat representing the area where the tower would go, said: "There were such questions, I'm actually very glad that it's back with the board of appeals."