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Developer sues Balto. Co. Council over Chestnut Ridge golf course zoning decision

Laws and LegislationJustice SystemConservationVicki Almond

A battle over the future of the closed Chestnut Ridge golf course in Lutherville is continuing, with the company that bought the property now suing the Baltimore County Council over its decision to limit the land's development potential.

In a lawsuit filed last month in Baltimore County Circuit, CR Golf Club LLC, which has ties to Timonium developer Cignal Corp., claims council members made an unfair land-use decision this summer that limited the number of homes that can be built on the approximately 230-acre property off Falls Road.

The company says the vote cost the firm $10 million because residential development on the property is no longer economically feasible under the new, more restrictive zoning category.

The golf course and Chestnut Ridge Country Club, which opened in the 1950s, closed last year amid financial troubles. Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat who represents the area, sided with community associations near the property that rallied to preserve the land. Neighbors had said residential development there would harm the environment and increase traffic.

Now, "the most likely outcome is that the Property will remain vacant, undeveloped, and provide no use or benefit to the County or its citizens, including [the developer], and will likely deteriorate even further," the developer's attorneys contend in the lawsuit.

Attorneys for the county, the council and the developer declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. Almond also said she could not comment for the same reason.

The lawsuit alleges that County Council members engaged in "spot zoning" — when zoning for one property is inconsistent with the land around it.

According to the lawsuit, the developer had planned to built about 85 luxury single-family houses on lots of at least 1.5 acres each — which would have been allowed under the zoning classification in place when the firm bought the property — with a selling price between $500,000 and $750,000 per lot. Custom-built homes would sell for up to $2 million.

Both the county planning staff and Planning Board had recommended keeping the zoning for the sprawling property as it was when the company purchased it. Then the council, in a unanimous August vote, shifted the zoning designation to one intended to more strictly conserve natural resources. The change limits the number of homes that could be built to nine.

The developer says it spent nearly $10 million to acquire the property and prepare it for development with feasibility and economic studies, engineering and other costs.

Residents' concerns included the potential for damage to headwaters of Dipping Pond Run, a tributary of the Upper Jones Falls, said Teresa Moore, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, a land preservation organization that also sought to protect the property from development

"The residents around there have been concerned about intensity of development for some time," said Moore, whose organization had contended during the zoning process that residential development at the golf course would conflict with county goals to protect water resources.

The lawsuit also challenges a county tradition called "councilmanic courtesy," in which council members follow the lead of the member who represents the district where a zoning issue is filed, rather than making up their own minds about each case. The developer's lawyers call the practice "fundamentally flawed" and secretive.

"This practice of councilmanic courtesy violates due process because it places the locus of decision-making in the hands of a single council member, representing the narrow interest of a single district, and not the full County Council, which is obligated to consider the public health, safety, morals and general welfare of the citizens of Baltimore County as a whole," they wrote in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, which names both the council and the county as defendants, asks the court to issue an order reversing the decision. It also seeks compensation of at least $10 million, among other relief measures.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Laws and LegislationJustice SystemConservationVicki Almond
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