Seeking the elusive fair shake in Howard

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE VANQUISHED protester held his disgust in check, hoping for a question that would allow him to vent.

Did he think opponents of the 500-acre, Maple Lawn Farms development got fair treatment from the zoning board?

"I agree that they allowed all of us to speak. Yes. There's no question," said John Adolphsen, a retired Goddard Space Flight engineer. "But there's a hell of a difference in speaking to people whose minds are open. We were speaking to a blank wall. What the hell good is that?"

The Howard County Zoning Board had just approved the Fulton project. Members of the council said they thought the process had been fair and dared to hope for some agreement.

The verdict of John Adolphsen and others did not support their hope. In truth, opponents might not have found fairness in anything but victory. Logic and truth and the law were with them, they thought, so how could approval be fair?

The deciding vote came from Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, who offered a "compromise" in which 52 housing units were removed from the proposal. Some 1,116 will still be built over 15 years beginning sometime in 2004.

"It's not a compromise at all," Mr. Adolphsen said. "It's diddly squat."

What he wanted was lower density meaning fewer houses: no more than 2 per acre instead of 2.3. One of his cohorts suggested 1.5. Anyone for one, for none?

The post-vote discussion made one thing perfectly clear. There was really no way to compromise on this matter. The county's land-use planners and zoning boards, past and present, targeted this part of Fulton for mixed-use development. Yes, that use was introduced as an overlay to the basic rural zoning. But the intent was clear.

Knowing that more houses would be needed and built in the county, wanting more jobs, planners and politicians decided to put some of both in this area.

When a big farm went on the market or seemed likely to, a developer began buying land and the Maple Lawn Farms proposal resulted.

The struggle that ensued was, in some respects, impossible to resolve. The county's plan called for up to three residential units per acre. And since it wants to restrict high density development, it wants to maximize high density in the designated places.

So, the zoning board considered the proposal from Stewart J. Greenebaum. It held 34 public hearings.

"We have dealt with this case at length," said County Council member Mary Lorsung, a member of the zoning boad. "We have dealt with it at great length -- at extraordinary length." She wanted more density, but voted for what she saw as a compromise.

Councilman Vernon Gray said a yes vote was the only logical option: "It has the infrastructure (water, sewer, schools, public safety) we say we want." The mixed-use development idea invited "creativity and imagination."

"That has been achieved here," he said.

Along with that, he observed, the landowner had been allowed to dispose of his property by sale.

"Gosh," said Councilman Allan Kittleman, as if happily taken by surprise, "that's a Republican principle."

Mr. Kittleman had offered a proposal that would have clipped 150 houses from the Greenebaum plan, adding some commercial, job-producing space in its place. His proposal, offered with Councilman Chris Merdon, was rejected.

When it was his turn, Councilman Guzzone said he thought the process had reached important slow-growth objectives. The number of houses that can be built in a given year was dropped from 150 to 120.

The road improvement requirements were added. A few houses were denied.

Opponents were anything but mollified.

"We're going to have an enormous mess," said John Taylor. "Guy Guzzone had a tremendous opportunity here but he let politics intervene." By politics, he apparently meant a desire to please a developer and to go along with other officials who have decided this development is in the best interests of the entire county.

Mr. Taylor, who still resents the imposition of mixed-use development years ago, thought the opponents deserved one more hearing. Exchanges of information between the developer and the zoning board amounted to a hearing from which opponents were excluded, he said.

As for the idea of compromise and the hope that citizens would feel they got a fair shake, Mr. Taylor scoffed.

"Their self-congratulations were appalling," he said.

The board, he said, had gotten tired. "It took a year of their lives and they ended it," he said. "There should have been 75 hearings. The process needs to be as long as it needs to be."

In matters such as this one, it's not over when it's over unless you win.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

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