Refuting a charge of behind-the-scenes dealings that excluded residents, the Howard County Planning Board yesterday denied a Columbia village board's request to reconsider its earlier approval of a huge retail development planned by the Rouse Co. for east Columbia.
The Planning Board also recommended granting a zoning exception to a Jewish organization allowing it to run an elementary school with up to 60 students -- an expansion plan that has been at the core of conflicts between the synagogue and its neighbors in west Columbia's Sebring community.
In arguing to reopen the case of the commercial project -- planned by Columbia's developer and dubbed "Chalice" -- Cecilia Januszkiewicz, chairwoman of Columbia's Long Reach village board, said many residents believe that testifying before the Planning Board is a "futile exercise" and that its decisions are a "done deal."
Long Reach residents have expressed concerns that the planned 73-acre project -- a grouping of warehouse-sized retail stores, restaurants and a gas station off Route 175 in Long Reach -- would worsen traffic problems because road improvements may lag behind the huge retail center's opening.
The Planning Board's July 19 approval of preliminary plans for Chalice reinforced residents' beliefs that the board pays more attention to developers than residents, Ms. Januszkiewicz said. She contended the board unfairly denied residents an opportunity to question Rouse representatives about traffic concerns to limit debate.
"To restore some credibility to the process, we urge you to reopen the hearing and stay the decision," she argued.
Planning Board member Haskell Arnold reacted angrily to Ms. Januszkiewicz's allegations. "I'm personally insulted at the suggestion we're doing something under the table and that this is a done deal," he said.
Other Planning Board members defended their 3-0 vote yesterday against reconsidering their decision, saying that July's hearing was conducted fairly and that residents weren't prohibited from presenting information or asking questions.
"I think the questions that needed to be asked were asked and that we did have the information to make a decision," said Joan Lancos, Planning Board chairwoman.
Ms. Lancos and a deputy county solicitor noted that county officials -- not Planning Board members -- determine whether roads will be sufficient to handle development through standards set in the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. Officials have advised the board that roads will be sufficient with planned improvements, particularly a highway interchange at Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway.
Alton J. Scavo, a Rouse senior vice president, said yesterday's decision will allow Rouse to continue without costly delays its negotiations with merchants to fill the 440,000-square-foot commercial complex -- about half the size of The Mall in Columbia and known in retail parlance as a "power center."
He emphasized that Rouse -- just like residents -- must follow the county's planning review procedures and accept the decisions. "Whatever the outcome, that's the result, so we don't have a custom-designed process for everybody's interest," he said.
But Long Reach residents said yesterday's decision was another indication that the deck is stacked against them in proceedings seemingly dominated by lawyers, developers and county officials.
"We're not trying to change the law. We're just trying to be heard," said Neela Knauff, a resident of Long Reach's Kendall Ridge neighborhood, where the retail project is planned along Route 175 between Dobbin Road and Snowden River Parkway.
"This is the Rouse Co. coming in over the heads of everyone that lives there and saying this is what we're going to do. That's the tone," she said. "It's very disappointing. We chose Columbia because we felt it was community-oriented and that we'd have )) an opportunity to have a say in things like this."
After the board denied her request to reopen Chalice's case, Ms. Januszkiewicz admitted the village board's challenge was a long shot. "The county needs to have this go forward so it can tout the continuing economic development of the county," she said. "This is a train rolling down the tracks, and no one is going to get in front of it to stop it."
The Chalice center, Rouse's second "power center" in Columbia, will be less than a mile from its first one, the successful, 2-year-old Snowden Square on Snowden River Parkway. Rouse must submit more detailed plans of the Chalice center's layout for final approval by the Planning Board before construction can begin.
In the case of the Jewish group -- Lubavitch of Howard County Inc. -- the Planning Board recommended approving a zoning exception to allow its plan for an elementary school with several conditions. One condition is to re-evaluate the situation after two years to see whether conflicts have been resolved.
Lubavitch was granted a zoning exception in 1989 for a religious facility and day care center with up to 30 children on Rodona Drive in the Sebring neighborhood, just west of U.S. 29. The neighborhood is partially within Columbia.
The 73-home Sebring Civic Association -- which long has opposed the expansion plans -- recommended denying Lubavitch's petition, saying the religious organization had violated conditions imposed in the 1989 zoning exception.
The case now goes to the county Board of Appeals for a final decision. Planning Board Chairwoman Lancos, a Sebring resident who also has opposed the Lubavitch's plans, removed herself for the case and did not vote on it.
Planning Board members cautioned synagogue leaders, saying they were disturbed by its frequent conflicts with Sebring neighbors over such issues as landscaping and traffic. They also expressed concern that the synagogue has no projections for the growth of its educational operation.
Rabbi Hillel Moshe Baron, who runs the center, said he was pleased with the decision and plans to work more closely with the synagogue's neighbors. "We know we have a lot of work ahead of us and we're willing to do it all," he said.