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Planning Board approves Rouse Co. apartment development


The fiery indignation of a Rouse Co. vice president proved more powerful yesterday than the concerns of some Columbia residents and two former high-ranking zoning officials who were trying to kill a plan for residential development downtown.

The residents, along with former Planning Board Chairwoman Helen Ruther and former Zoning Board Chairman Paul R. Farragut, believe that a Rouse Co. plan to build apartments on 11 acres adjoining Town Center's Symphony Woods is wrong-headed.

But a short-handed county Planning Board -- two of the five members were absent -- found more persuasive the arguments of Alton J. Scavo, the Rouse Co. vice president in charge of

Columbia's development. The board voted 2-to-1 to urge the County Council to approve the project when the council sits as the Zoning Board to consider the Rouse request.

The Planning Board vote is not binding. The council will rule on the request after a public hearing tentatively scheduled for July 26.

The three- and four-story apartments, condominiums and townhouses that Rouse wants to build on the Symphony Woods property and on 12 acres across the street on Little Patuxent Parkway are a key part of the company's plan to enliven Columbia's downtown, Mr. Scavo said.

"We're trying to [build] units that offer diversity -- units so physically different" from everything else in Columbia that "nothing else like it yet exists," Mr. Scavo said.

Some Columbia residents are unimpressed. They told the board the project would result in nearly unbearable rush-hour traffic, overcrowded schools and increased crime.

"If you're building one- or two-bedroom apartments, you're not getting professional people," said Hawthorn resident Hans Herberg. The occupants, he said, will be younger, "more transient" and "into more crime."

William Schwartz, of Wilde Lake village, added: "I'm totally against this. There is too much rental property in Columbia now. People leave. They are not fixing up their houses. There are too many adolescents. I am worried that we are opening the wedge to rezone and rezone and rezone."

And Doug O'Rourke, of Hickory Ridge, said the Rouse proposal would not provide downtown Columbia with "new flavor . . . . If you want a more vibrant feel, restaurants and shops are better than high-density housing."

The original downtown plan called for just that, former County Councilman Farragut told the board. He supports the Rouse proposal for apartments on 12 acres at the corner of Little Patuxent Parkway and Governor Warfield Parkway, he said, but the plan for Symphony Woods is another matter.

"I'm concerned about the noise" from concerts at the pavilion, he said. A state noise law imposes strict penalties if sounds in a neighborhood exceed a certain level. Bringing residences closer the pavilion increases the possibility of a violation and could lead to the closing of Merriweather Post Pavilion, he said.

Former Planning Board Chairwoman Ruther agreed. "What's the sense of putting in a residential development you know is going to have problems," she said. "We're all waiting for downtown, we all want a downtown. But we want a plan that really works."

An essential part of that plan, she said, is sidewalks. "I wouldn't allow [Rouse] any more development without sidewalks," she said. "The idea is to have a pedestrian-friendly place."

Planning Board member Theodore F. Mariani said he had been convinced that residential use was not intended around Symphony Woods when the downtown was planned years ago. "Residential use introduces conflict," he said.

That was the final straw for Mr. Scavo. He addressed the board a second time, saying he wanted to present "facts."

He said Rouse, the Columbia Association and the county government had entered into an agreement to build sidewalks downtown. Rouse and the association built their share of the sidewalks, he said, but the county did not.

He also said the Symphony Woods parcel was specifically identified for residential use in the 1990 General Plan. But when Rouse came forward with a plan, the zoning board, led by Mr. Farragut, rejected the idea although no residents opposed it, he said.

"We have been very good stewards of this property," Mr. Scavo told the board. "A lesser company would have put in a big-box retailer next to the mall. We haven't done what we could have done and could still do. We could have made a lot more money. You need to tell us as quickly as possible which are principles to be followed and which you're only kidding about."

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