Developer keeps fighting in Ellicott City


In a time and place where some people think development is a deadly sin, this is home builder Michael L. Pfau's point of view:

"Building houses and developing land is not an illegal business."

Pfau, a Columbia resident who started Trinity Homes Inc. 12 years ago, says growth is good. In his home state of North Dakota, the population is small - with enough people to justify only one member in the U.S. House of Representatives - and when he was a child, jobs were scarce and home values dropping. His town (population 1,000) had one traffic light, and it simply blinked.

He's proud of what he's done since then, saying he's "come up the hard way."

"I started with nothing," Pfau said. "I came out of college with nothing. I married my wife, inherited her student loans."

Pfau says determination is what keeps him fighting for two proposed historic Ellicott City developments that residents strongly oppose. He has been forced to revise his plans for one of the developments twice.

Ellicott City opponents, who've packed meetings and started letter-writing campaigns, say his projects are too large and would ruin the character of the quaint town.

Pfau, 45, says he would add to the charm. He says residents don't want to share the area and - despite their statements to the contrary - are trying to take away a property owner's right to build.

"Most people would quit by now," he said. "But I don't quit. That's why I'm successful."

His first career was home improvement, starting at age 15 when he put in a sidewalk for a neighbor. After he and wife Mary Therese moved to Laurel in 1978 - as house-sitters for friends - he painted homes and built additions.

The first home he built, about 20 years ago, was a simple split-foyer one for his family. Now Pfau, his wife and their five children live in a two-story, 11-year-old house in Columbia's Hickory Ridge.

It was that first house - or actually the money he made from selling it - that helped him start Trinity Homes in 1988. The business grew from two houses that year to an average of 65 homes annually over the past three years, mainly in Howard County but elsewhere in Maryland, too. Twenty-seven people work for Trinity Homes, which donates $1,000 to charity for each house sold, Pfau said.

In his free time, he takes his children on trips - fishing, scuba diving and water skiing, said Mary Therese Pfau.

But free time is rare. She estimates that he works about 85 hours a week - down from his earlier average of more than 100 hours.

"Mike's always been very driven," said Mary Therese, who married him almost 22 years ago. "To him, a 40-hour week would feel like a part-time job."

He typically refuses to quit over tough situations, a trait that's bolstered in the case of the Ellicott City proposals because he feels wronged, she said.

"Passing out fliers and tearing down his name - [it] made him want to prove that wasn't true," she said.

She said he's a complex man. He has a propensity for helping the destitute, often anonymously. People in difficult situations have moved him to tears.

Once, seeing a man with a sign offering to work for food, Pfau stopped at the corner of the road and promised him a job, she said. (The man never called.)

Complicated business

On the job, he comes across as serious and reserved. It's a tough industry, one that requires seriousness, he said. The economy is unpredictable; project delays, he's learned, can be devastating. And land is getting harder to find.

Once a parcel is located - if everything goes well - it takes two years for a developer/builder like Pfau to start building.

In between, he must hire engineers to study the land for environmental hazards and other problems, draw up proposals for the county to examine and make changes to the plans as county officials see fit.

Then it takes five to six months to construct the houses.

"Every project has its challenges, whether it's an easement or getting a waiver from the county," Pfau said.

"Unfortunately, it's just never that simple."

That's especially true of his historic Ellicott City proposals. The two are a few minutes' walk from each other: One is a parcel at the corner of Park Drive and Church Road, where he hopes to build 18 houses, and the other is a lot off Fels Lane, where he wants to put four office buildings designed to look like homes.

His proposed housing development is about 6 months old and hasn't been through public hearings yet, but he's been trying to build on Fels Lane for at least a year and a half.

Pfau's first plan, to build 27 townhouses on the 7-acre Fels Lane site, was rejected by the Historic District Commission - touching off a legal scuffle in which he contended that commissioners had waited too long to act on his proposal and thereby approved it by omission. A Howard County Circuit Court judge ruled in November that the commission had acted before its deadline.

Earlier this year, Pfau proposed a second plan for the site: an office complex designed to look like a farmstead. He withdrew those plans after complaints from residents. Under the newest proposal, the buildings would look like 19th-century houses.

His most vocal opposition comes from members of the Patapsco Heights-Church Road Association, who say both the office complex and the residential development would be out of place and do not conform to historic district regulations.

They say 18 homes is overkill in the Church Road area, which has about 40 houses now. And they say the Fels Lane office complex and its 68 parking spaces are far too large and would overshadow a nearby 170-year-old house, which they dub "the western gateway" of the historic district.

Fliers circulated in the area recently call the Fels Lane project a "crippling threat" that would contribute to the "destruction" of the historic district.

Residents' opposition

Residents say they don't want to take away anyone's property rights but are instead championing appropriate development.

"We're not trying to tell the developers 'do not come in here'; we're trying to get them to be responsible," said Charles Kyler, one of the opposition leaders. "It's density, density, density. It does not go along with the character."

Pfau said he can't understand why people think his proposals aren't appropriate. He said he's not asking for special exceptions to zoning rules. He said he's talked to residents about the architecture they'd prefer for the proposed Church Road homes. He said he changed his initial office complex plans because people didn't like them.

"What more can one do?" he asked. "It's just a matter of time until something's built there. And if it isn't me, it's going to be someone else."

Charles E. Fisher, a Church Road resident who works for the National Park Service as a historic preservationist, said the problem is that Pfau's proposals are trying to apply a "traditional approach to construction in Howard County" to the historic district. Putting in the maximum number of buildings allowed isn't good for the area, he said.

The situation has created hard feelings on both sides.

Kyler, who spent two years as a superintendent of construction for Pulte Home Corp., said he understands the building business and what developers go through. But he's angry and frustrated at Pfau, who he said isn't being accommodating to the needs of the historic district.

"None of it rings true, what he says," Kyler said. "I don't trust Mr. Pfau."

Charles Wehland, an attorney who owns land and buildings in the historic district and has handled some settlements for Pfau, says the plans should be "put in context." The office buildings would fit in with the historic style of the town and an immediate neighbor, the Roger Carter Center, looks modern, he said.

"It was [renovated] under historic district regulations, and nobody complained," Wehland said. "I can't quite understand this Fels Lane dispute."

He can see why residents don't believe Pfau's housing development, with its small lots, would fit in with the Church Road neighborhood. He thinks it's an area where a developer could afford to build fewer houses on more land.

But on the other hand, Pfau is following zoning regulations and he shouldn't be penalized for that, Wehland said. "What he's asking for is exactly what the governing body said it could be used for."

Love at first sight

Considering the hassle the Ellicott City projects have been for Pfau - and promise to continue being - the question is inevitable: Why did he decide to build in the historic district in the first place?

His answer: because he likes it there, from its quirky shops to its distinctive granite outcroppings.

"I fell in love with it the first time I walked on Main Street," he said.

It's an argument that annoys residents, who say they can think of better ways for Pfau to show his appreciation of the town.

"If he really likes Ellicott City and the historic district, why is he trying to pave it over and hide it?" Kyler asked. "People do not come to historic Ellicott City to see new office buildings and new subdivisions. They come to Ellicott City to see the past. ... The idea is to preserve that setting for future generations."

Pfau counters that he would allow more people to live and work in the nooks of the town.

Including, perhaps, himself.

Mary Therese Pfau wants to move into a house in that proposed development on Church Road, if it is built - making the family part of the very community association that's opposing the plans.

It's a decision she made after driving through the hilly, wooded neighborhood that sits near the picturesque ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute. Her husband can imagine living in the secluded spot, too.

"It's beautiful," he said.

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