Dispute over residential site lands in special appeals court


Ellicott City residents fighting proposed development near a picturesque house with history took their battle to Annapolis yesterday.

Three judges with the Court of Special Appeals heard the case, which has worked its way through the Howard County Planning Board, Board of Appeals and Circuit Court.

The residents say they want to protect the Keewaydin Farm House, built in 1913 by James Clark, who later became a Howard County Circuit Court judge and was the father of former state Sen. James Clark Jr. The 10.2-acre estate is off Old Columbia Pike.

In 1998, the county Board of Appeals approved a special exception that allows a two-story group care facility for the elderly to be built on about 4.5 acres of the property. Manorhouse Retirement Centers Inc. wants to construct the 60,000-square-foot building, which would have 87 rooms and 103 beds.

The neighbors, led by Bob Bernstein, president of the Old Columbia Pike Preservation Association, say the proposed building is more than 10 times larger than Keewaydin and would overwhelm the house.

"I think there are more appropriate locations for the facility they're proposing," said Bernstein, who said a much smaller building would be acceptable.

The case wended its way back and forth through Howard County panels before ending up in the Court of Special Appeals.

After the county Board of Appeals approved the proposed facility, Bernstein and others appealed the decision to Circuit Court.

That appeal - last September - ended with the case being sent back to the Board of Appeals on a procedural issue. The board members' ruling on the issue essentially reaffirmed their approval of the special exception.

The residents' lawyer, Cynthia Hitt, and attorneys for Manor - house and Howard County presented arguments yesterday to the Court of Special Appeals judges, who might not issue a ruling for several weeks.

Hitt asked the judges to send Manorhouse's building proposal back to the beginning of the special exception process.

The attorneys' arguments focused on sometimes-complicated zoning laws and procedures, but Hitt's main contention is that the facility's size is out of place in the neighborhood.

The area is zoned R-ED - Residential: Environmental Development, which refers to sensitive environmental and historical resources - and permits two "dwelling units" per useable acre. Hitt thinks that should be the maximum allowed for the group home, which would decrease the size of the building to nine rooms.

"The R-ED is a low-density residential zone," Hitt said. "This is an intense residential use."

Manorhouse argued in its brief that a room in a group care facility isn't the same as a "family dwelling unit," and said it would be "absurd" to apply the zoning regultions in that manner.

David Carney, Manorhouse's attorney, said yesterday that R-ED zoning is primarily intended to protect environmental resources, and he said the site isn't environmentally sensitive.

"Any adverse effects at this location would be less than any other location in the R-ED district," Carney said.

Historical resources - like the Keewaydin home - aren't protected by Howard County regulations unless they are within the Ellicott City historic district, he said. Keewaydin is just outside the district.

If the group facility is built, Carney said, people would be able to see Keewaydin from Old Columbia Pike. He said the tree-lined lane leading to the home will also remain.

Judge Andrew L. Sonner asked Carney whether the group home would be "inharmonious" in the neighborhood if it were 10 times the proposed size. Carney said yes.

Sonner said the difficulty is deciding when, exactly, a building becomes too large.

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