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Panel accepts disputed plan for Relay site BALTIMORE COUNTY


The tug of war between Relay residents and developer Carl Julio over how to use 24 acres of vacant land in that southwestern Baltimore County community has entered a new phase.

The County Review Group, an important technical review panel, yesterday approved Mr. Julio's newest plan to build 198 back-to-back condominium townhouses in a development called Hilltop Place, near Relay Elementary School. Although the review group has been replaced by a more citizen-friendly development process, cases that had been begun before March 15, 1992, are still handled by the two-member group.

The approval, based on a controversial letter from county zoning administrator Arnold E. Jablon, sets the stage for a protracted legal battle over the land's proper zoning.

Behind the legal battle, however, is the outrage residents feel over what they see as the county-sanctioned abandonment of their historic Patapsco River town's heritage.

Louise VanDerBeek, vice president of the Relay Improvement Association, said the plan for Hilltop "is in no way close to what we are. These [condominiums] don't even have backyards," she said, referring to the development's back-to-back design.

The townhouses would be north of the CSX Corp. railroad tracks and east of Metropolitan Boulevard, with access from Cedar Avenue.

The developer is doing what the county's 1979 growth plan suggested -- using land in older areas where utilities are available, rather than eating up rural farmland. County planning director P. David Fields said yesterday that between 1980 and 1990, 70 percent of the new homes built in the county were in older areas.

The struggle in Relay is not unusual. The higher cost of new housing is often reflected in tightly packed townhouses in areas where detached, single-family cottages have been the rule. Combined with growing traffic congestion, crowded schools and recreation facilities in older neighborhoods, these developments have provoked resentment.

Because of this anger, the county changed its Master Plan in 1989, along with development and zoning standards, to ensure that new projects are compatible with older homes and don't overload public facilities.

The Relay Improvement Association had hoped the county would buy the Hilltop land for a public park, as suggested in the 1989 Master Plan. The recession ended that idea. However, the County Council officially reserved the land for purchase as a park for 18 months, thus delaying Mr. Julio's initial plans to build 235 apartments on the land, which was zoned for 10.5 units per acre.

That reservation expired last September. One month later the County Council voted to change the zoning to allow only 5.5 units per acre. That meant that Mr. Julio could build no more than 132 units on the site and, under new county rules, the housing would have to be compatible with existing housing.

However, Mr. Jablon wrote a letter in December saying that the old, higher-density zoning could remain in force for 18 months to compensate for the period the site was reserved.

Whether that letter can supersede the County Council's authority to change the zoning is the legal issue that will be considered by the county Board of Appeals, and likely the county and state courts.

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