Howard apartment proposal runs into opposition

Plans for apartments, offices, stores and possibly a public elementary school near the Dorsey MARC train station hit a snag this week when an Elkridge woman appealed the rezoning of the 122-acre property.

"I think the zoning change was inappropriate," said Gail Sigel, who filed her appeal of the county zoning board's 3-2 approval of the rezoning on Wednesday. "I don't think it's a wise decision for the county. Our schools are overcrowded."

Sigel and other critics have said they'd rather see a conventional office park on the land than the 954 planned apartments mixed with offices and stores planned by Preston Partners. But it's not clear how far Sigel can take her appeal, since she must now raise thousands of dollars to pay for transcripts and hire an attorney.

Preston Partners President David P. Scheffenacker Jr. said he wants to move the 15-year Oxford Square project forward as quickly as possible, but he knew an appeal was possible.

"I'm disappointed, but it's a free country," he said. His firm is also free, he added, to seek dismissal of Sigel's appeal, possibly on the grounds that she doesn't live close enough to the site to have legal standing.

"This sets it back. It throws a wrench in the gears," said Preston attorney William Erskine. Preston and county planners argued for the project as part of a larger effort to build urban-style developments near the train stations to encourage more mass transit and reduce vehicle traffic. The sites all are within a few miles of Fort Meade.

The county school board voted 6-1 to accept the Preston offer of a 20-acre site for a school. Board Chairwoman Ellen Flynn Giles said the panel has until spring to decide whether to build an elementary school there to open in 2013.

"We have not stopped looking" for other sites, she said, and accepted the Dorsey site only to include it in the board's land bank. Preston promised to give the county $4 million cash with the land, and to build infrastructure to allow the school to be built before any apartment buildings go up.

The zoning board, made up of the five County Council members, voted 3-2 to rezone the land on Coca-Cola Drive for the project, intended to accommodate the defense employees and contractors coming to the area as part of the base realignment process known as BRAC and the new Cyber Command.

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who represents the area, and Fulton Republican Greg Fox voted against the rezoning because, they argued, industrially zoned land should not be changed for residential use and Elkridge is too congested already.

There are similar proposals for the MARC stations at Savage and at Laurel Park racetrack, but neither has begun construction. The Dorsey project is complicated, since the land is across Route 100 from the train station, a layout that would require negotiations with CSX for access to the station platform.

In a separate case, the board of appeals rejected plans for a cell tower next to a Glenwood church, a rare victory for residents who don't want to see the communications structures.

The 100-foot tower was one of five T-Mobile is trying to erect in western Howard County. In voting 4-1 to reject the pole proposed next to the Shepherd of the Glen Lutheran Church in the 14500 block Burntwoods Road. The board agreed with the attorney for a group of residents that the company had not searched diligently enough for other locations.

"They didn't meet that burden," attorney Joan Becker said. "The facts were on our side."

Area residents have had several bruising zoning battles over T-Mobile's proposals to erect towers on farms and remnants of farms because nearby suburbanites consider them unsightly. The firm has argued it needs them to improve reception and expand service, and there are fewer buildings on which to locate antennas in the rural west.

T-Mobile spokesman Jason Campbell, a senior development manager, could not be reached for comment.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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