Neighbors fight proposal for 20 homes; Foes say plans don't fit the Church Road area


Residents are fighting a proposal to build 20 houses in the historic Church Road area of Ellicott City, arguing that the subdivision would ruin the character of the neighborhood.

At least 17 community members have sent letters to Howard County officials urging them to reject plans for The Woods at Park Place in Historic Ellicott City, and residents are hoping to persuade state officials to buy the 15-acre parcel for a park.

The developer, Michael L. Pfau of Trinity Homes Inc. in Columbia, isn't asking for special exceptions to zoning regulations. But opponents say the proposal -- for 20 lots on 7 acres surrounded by about 8 acres of open space -- doesn't fit in with the community.

The neighborhood, built into the steep hills of Ellicott City, is a stone's throw from the county courthouse and the picturesque ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute.

About 40 houses sit on upper Church Road, Sylvan Lane and Park Drive, the area bounded by the Patapsco Heights-Church Road Association. Some homes date to the 19th century. The average lot size is more than 3 acres, residents estimate.

"It's taken 100-plus years to get to 40 houses, and then we're going to increase it by a half in the blink of an eye," said Michalle Ann Stevenson, president of the neighborhood association.

"The project is ill-advised in this area. It's just not tailored to the uniqueness of the setting," she said.

Residents also believe that the development would send silt into nearby Sucker Branch stream and pose safety problems because of the narrowness of the roads.

Pfau -- whose proposal for office buildings off nearby Fels Lane has also attracted opposition from Ellicott City residents -- said the development wouldn't be close enough to the river to have an impact on it.

His engineers have studied the roads and concluded that the traffic created by residents from 20 houses "is just not a lot of traffic," he said.

Pfau said his site plan puts larger lots in front, hiding the smaller lots from view so the development won't seem out of place.

"We've created a very good plan. We're going to basically let the residents pick what the houses will look like," he said. "The real crux of the matter is, they want to keep the whole area for themselves."

Pfau met with residents last month to discuss the project. Stevenson and others said they are hoping to find an alternative that works for both sides.

They told Pfau they want to see the proposed number of houses reduced, although their first choice is to preserve the land -- a hilly, wooded area with steep slopes and a flood plain.

"If there was a highest and best use, it would be parkland," said Evelyn Belschner, a resident of Church Road for more than 20 years.

The residents succeeded before in a similar situation: A 32-acre parcel off Park Drive was bought by the county and state for $1.5 million and added to Patapsco Valley State Park in 1992 after neighbors organized to fight proposed development there.

Pfau paid $520,000 for his 15-acre parcel in December.

Residents have contacted state officials about their desire to turn the land into a park, Stevenson said.

"But that is a long process," she added.

Bernie Wentker, central regional administrator for Program Open Space, said yesterday that the state isn't interested in the site. Money is tight, and "we really don't need more land there," he said.

John Byrd, chief of the parks and program services bureau for the county Department of Recreation and Parks, said his department doesn't expect to negotiate for the parcel. He said Howard will get 60 percent of the land for free because Pfau will give it to officials as dedicated open space.

"We're very sympathetic [to the residents]," Byrd said. "But we're really not in a position right now where we can come to their rescue."

Pfau's development plans are being considered by the county's subdivision review committee, which asked two weeks ago for a variety of modifications. None specifically required fewer houses on the land.

If Pfau changes his proposal to the committee's satisfaction, members will forward the plans to the Howard County Planning Board.

The county Historic District Commission would have to approve the development's architecture, grading and tree removal.

Kent Sheubrooks, planning supervisor with the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning, called the proposal a "typical 20-lot subdivision" that's made more complicated by the historic location.

It's a difficult proposition, agreed Joseph W. Rutter Jr., county director of Planning and Zoning.

"They need to minimize the environmental impact, but at the same time I don't want him to put [in] the smallest possible lots. That would be incompatible with the nature of that area of Church Road," he said.

"We're trying to balance some very extensive regulations that aren't necessarily compatible with each other."

Rutter said his department is familiar with the residents' concerns. "I'm hopeful that we'll find a compromise," he said.

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