Ruling against project disputed; Fels Lane developer says historic panel missed deadline


More than a month after Howard County's Historic District Commission voted to deny a proposal to build 27 townhouses on Fels Lane in Ellicott City, the developer has announced that he plans to build anyway.

Michael Pfau, president of Trinity Homes Inc., and his lawyer, Thomas M. Meachum, claimed that the commission did not deny Pfau's proposal within the 45 days required by law. The commission approved the development by default, they said.

In a letter dated Tuesday, Pfau's lawyer requested a certificate of approval from the commission so the project can proceed.

"The application is deemed approved, and any action to the contrary is a nullity," Meachum wrote.

But Thomas P. Carbo, legal adviser to the commission, disagreed. He said members acted "properly and in a timely fashion and within their rules."

The commission held the last of three Fels Lane hearings Nov. 5 and had until Dec. 21 to act. Although it voted to deny the development Nov. 23 -- within 45 days -- it did not file a signed document until Dec. 30.

According to the Howard County Code, "Failure of the commission to act within 45 days from the date an application is heard shall constitute approval" unless the applicant and the commission agree on an extension.

Stephen R. Bockmiller, the commission's administrative assistant in the Office of Planning and Zoning, said the dispute boils down to interpretation of the law.

"The actual written decision was signed after 45 days. However, the commission made its decision within 45 days," he said. He would not give an opinion on the matter.

The commission voted last night to defer action on the application so that residents can respond to the developer's letter. It will take up the issue next month.

Some residents who testified at the hearings are upset. They received a copy of Meachum's letter to the commission Wednesday.

Arnold Sanders, who has lived in the historic district for 10 years and who testified before the commission, said he is upset that "the expressed will of the board would in some way be overturned because of a piece of paper."

"What astonishes me is the long delay in that paperwork," he said.

Sanders said he opposed the development because "it made no attempt to resemble in either materials or design any of the native architecture."

He said he worries that Pfau's project could open the way to similar developments.

"It would be an impetus to create kind of [a] historical district around the historic district," he said. "Eventually they'll ruin what they're building around and by then they'll have made their money and they'll have moved on."

Kristine Copeman, who lives on Park Avenue overlooking the proposed development, said she worries that the townhouses would be visible from Main Street and that the project would add to traffic problems in the congested area.

"We have to decide what type of town we're going to be," she said. "People like this town because we're this quaint little mill town surrounded by suburbia. There's nothing we can do about suburbia encroaching on our borders but there is something we can do about keeping the integrity of the historic district. I want it to remain a quaint little mill town surrounded by trees."

The Fels Lane property is zoned for townhouses, and the commission does not have the power to change that. But members can reject a development plan if the architecture does not fit in the historic district or if they feel it would negatively affect the district.

The six members present at the Nov. 23 meeting voted unanimously to deny Pfau's proposal. One said it was a "Columbia-style development" that would detract from Ellicott City's historic value.

Others worried that the proposed materials -- including vinyl shutters and fiber-cement siding -- would not fit into the architecture of the historic district; that the wooden decks would be visible from Main Street; that the facades of the townhouses are too uniform; and that the development would detract from the 70-year-old stone structure already on the property.

Yesterday, Pfau defended his development plans.

"What I'm doing here is all within the guidelines," he said. "It's a first-class community." He said it was "unreasonable" and "almost an injustice" that the commission voted against his project in the first place.

"They just don't want development," he said. "It doesn't matter what I put there, they just don't want it. Any excuse will do."

Pub Date: 1/08/99

Due to an editing error, an article in The Sun on Friday on a proposed development in Ellicott City's historic district incorrectly conveyed the meaning of a comment by a critic of the proposal. What Arnold Sanders actually said was, "It would be an impetus to create kind of an ahistorical district around the historic district."The Sun regrets the error.
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