Critics of a proposed 260 town-home development in Columbia's Hickory Ridge may get a second shot at scaling back the project, thanks to developer Dale Thompson's financial woes.
Creditors have obtained court judgments against Thompson, a builder for 22 years, and his various companies for more than $25 million in defaulted loans, and a sale of the 30-acre Riverdale site at Route 32 and Cedar Lane could result, a lawyer for one of the creditors said.
The Baltimore Sun reported last week that the well-regarded builder of upscale Howard County homes appears to be out of business. His Columbia office is empty and dark, and Thompson had been unavailable for comment.
But Thompson said Thursday that is a false impression and he hopes to continue with his projects - perhaps even ones that have been foreclosed on.
"Dale Thompson Builders is still in operation. It's a very difficult time," Thompson said, adding he's still negotiating with the banks who have claims against him, but could not provide more details right now.
Still, he stressed, "Sandy Spring Bank has not taken any action to foreclose on Riverdale." Thompson said he hopes to rescue the deal.
County executive Ken Ulman, who represented that area of west Columbia on the County Council when the zoning for the Riverdale site was changed to permit more development, said he would like to see the current plans for the project revised.
Packing so many homes on a hill just above the beleaguered Middle Patuxent River raises serious environmental concerns, he said.
"I've got some concerns about it," Ulman said. "We're looking at opportunities to see if it can become more environmentally friendly."
County Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat who represents the area now, agreed. Sediment and chemicals that could be washed downhill "may hurt the river," she said.
The added traffic could also "create a future nightmare," she said. Traffic turning north off high-speed Route 32 would encounter vehicles from the development, which lies on the north side of the highway and the east side of Cedar Lane, a four-lane boulevard where motorists often speed.
Community leaders agree, worrying about the effect on an already hazardous intersection. In addition, Howard County government is planning to build the Robinson Nature Center just across Cedar Lane, attracting even more vehicles.
"I see it as a rape of the land. It doesn't get much worse, in my view," said Bridget Mugane, who heads the Howard County Citizens Association that has opposed Riverdale.
She would like to see the land could be rezoned for less intense use.
Residents see the current plans as a betrayal. In 2004, the development was advertised as 140 homes and an office building.
"We feel like this is bait and switch," said Greg Schwind, who served as chairman of the Hickory Ridge Village Board and was elected April 25 to represent his village on the Columbia Association Board.
A sale of the property might be good, he said. "If it results in the project getting scaled back, we would obviously be happy with that."
The builder has until June 10 to submit a final plat and site development plan to the county for Phase One, which consists of 148 homes. Plans for the remaining 112 are due between July 1, 2010 and April 10, 2011, said county planning director Marsha McLaughlin.
In March, Sandy Spring Bank got a court judgment against Thompson for a $14 million loan under the property's name, though Thompson owes the bank nearly double that on a variety of loans covering multiple building sites.
Keyser-Thompson, a subsidiary of Sinclair Broadcast Group, has a secondary judgment for $4.4 million more, according to court records.
John R. Wise, a lawyer representing Keyser-Thompson, declined to comment on the case. Lawyers for Sandy Spring Bank did not return phone calls.
There was lively interest from buyers at an April 24 auction for five model homes at Thompson's Scotts Glen project for seniors, near the Riverdale land on Cedar Lane, and for lots at his Highland Overlook development, said Kathryn Hughes, project coordinator for American Auctions and Appraisals Inc.
She said three of the five model luxury town homes at Scotts Glen, at 3,400 square feet each, sold for between $365,000 and $420,000, far below their former top retail price of $775,000, and there was interest in the other two.
At Highland Overlook, six one-acre or larger lots sold for up to $295,000 each.
"We have had an amazing amount of interest," Hughes said. "People are looking for bargains."