UMBC plan dealt setback; Court rules county erred in approving research park


A week after signing its first tenant, the UMBC Research Park has been dealt a setback by a Maryland appeals court, which ruled yesterday that Baltimore County erred in approving the project's development plan.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the state's second-highest, agreed with park opponents that the county zoning commissioner erred when he refused to consider the park's impact beyond the limits of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County campus.

The court ordered a new hearing to determine what impact the project will have on the neighborhood around the $50 million park.

"We believe the project is compatible," said G. Scott Barhight, an attorney representing UMBC Research Park. "I think we're going to be able to proceed as originally planned. It's basically a technical issue that relates to the definition of neighborhoods, and we think it's going to be cured."

Barhight also said officials have not reviewed the decision in detail and have not decided whether to appeal.

Research park officials say they are not expecting problems with recent plans for RWD Technologies, a Columbia-based technology training and consulting company, to become the park's first tenant. Park officials and RWD met yesterday to discuss the court ruling.

"We don't expect this to impact our plans with RWD," said Ellen J. Wiggins, executive director of UMBC Research Park Corp. "I am confident that we will be able to keep with our schedule to begin construction in late spring."

Thomas Dernoga, a lawyer representing the residents who opposed the development, said UMBC would be proceeding at its own risk if it went ahead with development of the park. He said residents might seek an injunction to stop work.

"Anything they could be doing would be at risk," Dernoga said.

UMBC has tried for more than 10 years to develop a research park on the site at UMBC Boulevard and Campus Loop Road but has been repeatedly stymied by opponents in Catonsville and Arbutus who contend that the research park threatens the residential quality of their community.

In 1997, the research park appeared to be clear of legal hurdles and began preparing and marketing the site. Nevertheless, interest by research companies lagged until RWD Technologies signed a letter of intent last week to become the first tenant of the high-technology center.

RWD has said it would begin construction early next year on a two-story, 40,000-square-foot laboratory that would be the first of five buildings on the 41-acre research park.

Park officials also said they are close to signing an agreement with Grosvenor International Ltd. -- which has developed buildings in the United Kingdom -- to develop the research park.

Opponents of the park said they were not surprised by the ruling.

"We believed the Court of Special Appeals would render a decision agreeing with us," said Berchie Lee Manley, a former Baltimore County councilwoman.

Dernoga said his clients are not sure they can stop the project but want to limit its size.

The project is much smaller than the original plan, which called for 12 buildings on 93 acres south of the university's main campus near Interstate 95. University officials have said the rest of the land, except for 5 acres, would not be developed, but Dernoga said residents want assurances of that.

"If there is some guarantee about what would happen to the other property, that might get the opposition to drop it," he said.

In its ruling, the Court of Special Appeals agreed that county officials had erred in the way they defined the neighborhood that surrounds the research park. County officials defined the neighborhood as basically the UMBC campus and excluded nearby housing developments.

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