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Howard council weighs eminent domain curbs amid Clarksville dispute

Republican Fox believes road project not for public benefit

By Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

6:16 PM EDT, September 1, 2011

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Returning from a monthlong break, the Howard County Council will begin discussing new legislation on Tuesday, including a bid to restrict the county's authority to seize private property through eminent domain.

A bill introduced by Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, would change the county charter to limit the county's ability to take land for nonpublic uses. It is in response to a continuing battle over where to put an access road for a county-owned property that was slated to be a mixed-use development before the developer backed out in July.

Fox said he is trying to attract attention to what he believes is strong-arming by County Executive Ken Ulman to develop the site at the expense of the nearby property owners.

The proposed road would "encumber the property rights of these owners," Fox said.

But some on the council have raised questions about the resolution and its effectiveness. Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an East Columbia Democrat, said Fox's resolution, if passed, would not go into effect until after the 2012 election.

If Fox's resolution won County Council support, the measure would have to go before voters in a referendum before it could become law.

Fox argued that roads might be a public use but a road connecting Auto Drive and an extension of Great Star Drive, west of Clarksville Pike, would be used primarily for the benefit of whatever development is built on the county-owned land.

"When land is needed for traffic safety improvements anywhere in the County, it is the obligation of County Government to be willing to consider using eminent domain if it is in the citizens' best interests," Ulman spokesman Kevin Enright said in a statement. He said Ulman has never used the tool during his two terms as county executive.

Ulman believes "that it should only be considered as a last resort, and he is committed to working with property owners to develop mutually acceptable solutions," the statement said.

In October 2005, then-Councilman Ulman co-sponsored a similar resolution that was adopted, limiting eminent domain for public purposes and not private economic development. But Fox argued that the resolution did not go far enough — that while it takes a stance against using eminent domain for private economic development, it cannot stop the county from being using that power.

"It doesn't accomplish anything," he said.

The Clarksville property was slated to be developed into a commercial space with shops and a hotel but the developers, GreenStone Ventures, backed out after disputes over the lack of an entryway onto the property that sits on the west side of Clarksville Pike or Maryland Route 108.

Fox said he's concerned that now, without a contract for the property, the county could argue that a new road is not for a development on the site but for public use, making it easier to acquire private land.

The property is a now a vacant field after the old school building was razed. It cost the county $259,000 to demolish the brick school building.

The State Highway Administration will not permit an entryway directly from the property onto Route 108 because of concerns about additional traffic. Preliminary plans presented to the planning board proposed a new road connecting Auto Drive to the south and Great Star Drive to the north.

The planning board ended up voting against funding for land acquisition for the county-owned parcel after a lengthy public hearing Aug. 4 when more than 100 people showed up in support of Kendall Hardware, which is south of the site on Route 108.

The board decided, after two hours of testimony, to support spending $600,000 for a broader examination of traffic in the area but not to approve money for land acquisition.

"Many people are very upset," Fox said of the Clarksville Commons site, which lacks a road onto the property unless it cuts near other previously developed properties.

The owner of a building housing a Pizza Hut restaurant, John Schultze, president of S&W Management would like to build a new building behind his property but says a new road could cut right through his site.

Ilene Veasel, who co-owns the post office building, said before the meeting that her group decided not to renew the lease because of uncertainty about the property. The county executive offered to lease the site to the post office rent-free for two years, and a post office spokeswoman said it was still evaluating the offer.

Owners of Kendall Hardware, which is next to the site, worry they would lose the entry into their back lot, which they use for storage and large truck deliveries.

Ball also asked about raising the issue with a 15-member commission that is required to review the county's charter every eight years. Fox said he would have brought up the issue before, but at the time he was unsure how to proceed.

"I hope they will add it to their list of discussion items," Fox said. But he added that "we're going to have a public discussion" in the council.

The council will also review a resolution amending rules for a down-payment loan program, such as requiring a minimum debt ratio of 45 percent, requiring the house to be used as a primary residence, using the loans in combination with other loans and using the loan program to pay for certain discount fees.

Stacy Spann, director of the county's housing department, said the program's funding has increased from just over $100,000 to about $500,000 this year after the county's budget improved.

"The budget was extremely tight last year," he said, adding that demand had not been strong, but now "we are seeing more interest."

Last year, he said, the program assisted eight families and this year they are hoping to help 15 to 20.

The council will also review a resolution to streamline the role of the Ethics Commission with regard to state laws related to information disclosed by county officials, provisions related to gifts and other requirements.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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