Housing plan becomes issue of 'fairness'; Planning chief tries to block project OK'd by appeals board; Sewer line is focus; Council is to vote on extension promised to developer in 1995


A proposed townhouse complex for senior citizens in rural West Friendship has ignited a debate over whether Howard County officials can stop the project after it received the blessing of the Board of Appeals last month.

Ahmad Bagheri's plan to build 25 units on 13.75 acres in the 11000 block of Frederick Road was approved Jan. 12 by the board, which overruled objections raised by the county Planning Board and the Department of Planning and Zoning.

Now, Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. says he will not approve any building plans for the project unless compelled by the County Council. The council votes March 1 on a resolution pushed by Rutter that would deny an extension of public sewer lines to Bagheri's parcel -- effectively blocking his plan.

"I don't feel that I can sign a site development plan until the council takes some action," Rutter says. "If he [Bagheri] can't extend the sewer, then he can't build the townhouses."

Bagheri's attorney criticized the department's stance.

"It's not fair to change the rules in the middle of the game just because the county has the power to do so," argues Thomas M. Meachum. "It would be unjust and unfair to my client, and they [the County Council] should recognize that."

It's not clear how the five-member council will vote. Two members indicated they would support Bagheri, but others did not return calls.

Roots of battle

The roots of the battle over the seemingly minor development go back five years when Bagheri considered buying the parcel, which is across from the farm of former County Councilman Charles C. Feaga.

Because the land was not suitable for wells, Bagheri asked the Department of Public Works about the possibility of extending public sewer lines to the property.

Although the 1993 General Plan provided public water to what is known as the Marriottsville area to alleviate contamination from the Alpha Ridge landfill, the General Plan prohibited the extension of sewer lines to the area, which has slowed development there.

But if a property owner offers to pay for extending those lines and to pay water and sewer taxes for several years before receiving the lines, the property would be included in a long-range plan for public water and sewer, called the Metropolitan District, says Public Works Director James Irvin.

Agreeing to pay the $400,000 associated with the extension of sewer lines, Bagheri bought the parcel in 1994 and persuaded the County Council to add the property to the Metropolitan District. The bill was passed by the council Jan. 3, 1995, and signed into law by former County Executive Charles I. Ecker six days later.

But when Bagheri approached the Department of Planning and Zoning last June to obtain a special exception for his townhouse complex, Rutter told him that his office would not endorse any extension of the sewer lines because it contradicted the General Plan.

On Dec. 2, the Planning Board sided with the department and unanimously rejected Bagheri's plan. But the Board of Appeals -- noting that the property was already included in the Metropolitan District -- approved the project.

That led to this month's introduction of a resolution that would effectively stop Bagheri from paying for the sewer extensions. The resolution would also reaffirm the General Plan's intent to prohibit the sewer extensions into the Marriottsville area.

'You have a conflict'

Rutter says the boundary was drawn to prevent rapid development in the western end of the county.

"If the council feels that the area should be served with public water and sewer, they should change the designation of the area to an urban growth region as the first step," he says. "Otherwise, you have a conflict."

Meachum disputes the contention that extending sewer lines to his client's parcel will lead to further growth.

"We're in the extreme eastern end of the [Marriottsville] area, not in the middle," he asserts. "All you have to do is run the line from [the adjacent development called] Terra Maria. That's it."

Rutter and Meachum blame the Department of Public Works for encouraging Bagheri to go forward with his plan. Irvin acknowledges that his office erred.

"When we changed the maps to show the new water lines, we mistakenly changed the sewer map, too," he says. "But we told him before the [Planning Board] hearing that we wouldn't allow it, and he disagreed with us."

'Unfair to take it away'

Of the five County Council members reached yesterday, Republican freshmen Allan H. Kittleman from the western county and Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City said they would allow Bagheri to extend sewer lines if the county had implied that he could pay for that extension.

"If he thought that he had that right for five years -- and it looks like that is what the [1995] bill was supposed to do -- it's unfair to take it away from him," Kittleman says. "It's really a fairness issue to me."

Democrat Guy Guzzone of North Laurel, freshman council member, says he remembers the 1993 General Plan process.

"It was absolutely, positively clear that we would not extend sewer to those folks," Guzzone recalls. "However, if the county has misled a property owner in some way, we have to factor that in."

Pub Date: 2/19/99

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