Tower foes take a hit

Highest Md. court to examine ruling on Columbia project

November 20, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Columbia residents fighting to stop construction of a 23-story mixed-use tower proposed for the town's lakefront suffered a setback when the state's highest court agreed to review a lower court ruling that favored opponents.

The residents had hoped the case was headed back to the county government for a hearing before the Board of Appeals. They contend that WCI Communities' plan for Renaissance Tower - which calls for 160 luxury condominiums atop one floor of commercial space - leaves more residential space in Town Center than zoning allows. The 1.46-acre site was formerly occupied by commercial buildings.

The opponents' attorney, E. Alexander Adams, said he is perplexed as to what legal aspect of the case the high court wants to clarify.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Howard County section on Nov. 20 incorrectly described the position of residents opposed to the planned Renaissance Tower in Columbia.
The residents have argued that the plan for the 23-story building calls for more residential development than is allowed by Town Center zoning and that county officials erred in approving the project.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

"I'd hoped we could just get back and get to the evidence," he said.

A spokeswoman for WCI declined to comment. No date for a hearing before the Court of Appeals has been set.

Although WCI has building permits and last year installed utilities on the Little Patuxent Parkway lot next to Copeland's restaurant, the national real estate meltdown and credit crunch have prevented construction. Deposits have been returned to early buyers, and the court fight continues.

Adams has said he intends to oppose the zoning, even if WCI were to bow out of the project, to prevent a new developer from building. Critics say the structure would be far too high and out of scale with the rest of Columbia, although General Growth Properties' plan for redeveloping Town Center calls for several buildings up to 20 stories.

The July decision by the Court of Special Appeals represented a victory for the residents, reversing earlier rulings that the people who brought the suit had no legal standing.

But the Court of Appeals announced last week that it has agreed to examine the lower court decision, which determined that a plaintiff who lives in a condominium next to the tower site has legal standing.

The Court of Appeals action gives WCI another chance to avoid reopening the issue.

Joel Broida, the plaintiff who lives next to the site, said he would have preferred that the Court of Appeals decided not to review the case. But he said he is not worried that building will start any time soon.

"With the financial situation as it is today, no one's going to do anything," he said.

The Renaissance Tower project was approved long before a 30-year plan for redeveloping all of central Columbia was submitted last month by General Growth Properties, the town's master developer.

Those plans, which call for 5,500 new homes and 6 million square feet of office, retail and hotel space around The Mall in Columbia, Symphony Woods and the lakefront, are set for review starting next month by the county Planning Board.

In a 76-page planning staff report, also released last week, county officials recommended approval of GGP's plan if dozens of suggestions are heeded.

The report called for more safeguards that elements such as affordable housing and cultural amenities would be built by dividing the three-decade-long project into six phases instead of three, and creating benchmarks for promises kept before more work could go forward.

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