A plan to turn a portion of the University of Maryland Baltimore County campus into a biotechnology research center has been rejected by the county Boards of Appeals, posing a new obstacle to a key local economic development project.
But UMBC and government officials characterized the decision -- reversing the approval granted in May by the county zoning commissioner -- as a minor setback for the proposed university-sponsored research park which they say could account for 2,000 jobs over 20 years.
County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III said yesterday he could not comment on the appeals board's decision until reading its written decision, which has not yet been issued. The decision is not official until then.
"I will reiterate my position that I consider the UMBC project to be of vital importance to the county and to the region in terms of both jobs and revenue," Mr. Ruppersberger said.
Councilman Stephen G. "Sam" Moxley, a Democrat who represents the area, said he viewed the decision as a minor setback, depending on how quickly the university can modify its plan to meet the appeals board's legal objections.
The Board of Appeals rejected the option of sending the development plan back to Zoning Commissioner Lawrence E. Schmidt and allowing UMBC to modify its proposal. But University officials indicated they will file a motion asking the board to reconsider that option.
"We face a time factor here and it would be much quicker to have the case sent back to the zoning commissioner than to start all over with the development review process or to appeal the board's decision to the courts," said Shirley L. Bigley, university counsel.
An attorney for area residents who have waged a six-year battle against the research park said the fight will continue, whatever direction UMBC takes.
Ms. Bigley said UMBC and officials of the Maryland Department of Economic Development did not want the delay to affect federal funding for the project.
The first phase of construction for the park, with four building sites, is expected to cost $2.5 million. Financing includes a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, $450,000 from Baltimore County, a $650,000 state loan and a $150,000 grant from the Abell Foundation.
The research park plan envisions an eventual 12 buildings on the 93-acre site bordered by Route 166, Sulphur Spring Road and UMBC Boulevard in Catonsville.
The main impact of the board's decision falls on Atlantic Pharmaceutical Services, which plans to occupy the first research building on the site and provide about 50 jobs.
Atlantic's building site was on a piece of flat ground along a residential zoning line which cut through the UMBC property. The university was seeking a variance to county zoning laws requiring a 200-foot setback from that line.
The three-member appeals board panel said that UMBC failed to prove that there was anything unique about the site to warrant the zoning variances crucial to the development plan.
G. Scott Barhight, an attorney representing UMBC before the appeals board, said the particular requirements of the operation of Atlantic dictated that the building be placed on flat ground. Both those requirements and the zoning lines were part of the uniqueness of the property, he maintained.
But Robert O. Schuetz, appeals board chairman, said in public deliberations Tuesday that there is nothing unique about the placement of zoning lines. He said that under legal tests established in a recent Maryland Court of Special Appeals case, the uniqueness standard must apply to the property.
The board denied the setback variance required for the building as well as another that involved a parking area.
Since the research park development plan hinges heavily on receiving the zoning variances, Mr. Schuetz said the plan itself also must be denied.
Ms. Bigley said in wake of the decision, UMBC is discussing with Niro Inc., parent company of Atlantic Pharmaceutical, the possibility of other locations for the building in the research park.
Robert E. Johnson, treasurer of the Columbia-based Niro, said the decision has not yet jeopardized plans for Atlantic to locate at UMBC.
"We're disappointed with the decision and the delay, but we are talking with state officials about other locations on the site," Mr. Johnson confirmed.
Thomas E. Dernoga, an attorney representing area residents, said his clients were "shocked" by their victory before the appeals board -- which they saw as usually not receptive to community views.
"Whatever UMBC decides to do, my clients intend to fight tooth and nail," Mr. Dernoga said.