Despite a letter-writing campaign launched by anxious residents, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens exercised her veto power yesterday, nixing a bill that would have set design guidelines for the redevelopment of the Parole Plaza near Annapolis.
The veto announcement - which had been expected, in part because of the icy relationship between Owens and the bill's author, council member Barbara D. Samorajczyk - upset many residents who saw the legislation as a means to guard against architectural eyesores.
"The concern is that the people who build will just build rectangular buildings and they won't look very good, and that the standards that people wanted won't be met," said Liles Creighton, who lives near Weems Creek and is a member of the Parole Growth Management Committee, a group that worked for two years to set design standards for the center.
Owens, who signed a development agreement with Parole Plaza developer Carl Freedman in September, sought to ease concerns yesterday, stating that she is "committed" to setting design standards for the moribund shopping center.
Owens said she would appoint an advisory committee to finalize design rules, revise a redevelopment plan for Parole Plaza and propose zoning regulations.
An Owens spokesman said that the development package could be submitted to the County Council for review and adoption before the end of March.
"All this will be done on an expedited basis," Owens said in a written statement.
Plans for the renewed Parole Plaza include a Wal-Mart, a grocery store, shops and boutiques, and two towers of apartments and offices.
Concerns that building permits for the shopping center could be issued before design standards are in place should be laid to rest, she said, adding that "as long as the council acts expeditiously on the final design standards ... no building permits will be issued."
Owens' statement conflicts with one made at a council meeting last week by Planning and Zoning Officer Denis Canavan, who said his staff might not be able to delay issuing the permits.
"I don't understand how Ms. Owens can promise something that her own planning director couldn't promise a week ago," said Dan Pontious, director of the Baltimore Regional Partnership, a collection of groups that work to promote responsible growth. "I assume that Ms. Owens can come through on this promise."
If she can't, the Parole project has the potential to turn into another development disappointment for the Owens administration, which bungled efforts to erect a Safeway in Deale, a project that was endorsed by many community members but turned ugly when Owens couldn't persuade Safeway officials to build a smaller store.
Owens, who is gearing up for a re-election bid in 2002, seems to recognize that her reputation as a Smart Growth initiate is on the line.
In her statement, Owens said that she wants to pull together a project plan that will guide redevelopment in the Parole area for years, adding that the county can't afford any more "incomplete" or "inconsistent" plans to guide development.
And while there aren't many county residents who would disagree with that sentiment, there are some who doubt Owens' commitment to responsible growth, given her decision to veto legislation that at least might have provided a backup.
"I am not reassured of anything," said Dinny White, a resident of Severn Grove near Annapolis and a retired architect and professional planner. White also is a member of the growth management committee. "[Owens] has never given us any feedback on anything," she said.
White and other members of the committee have criticized the Owens administration for sitting on a draft version of the design rules, which was approved in April, for more than four months. When Owens signed the development agreement, the committee was caught off guard.
"A positive result of all of this is that at least the committee is getting back together," said committee co-chairman John Fischer.
Samorajczyk, who wrote the bill in an effort to hold Freedman and Wal-Mart officials to basic design standards, declined to comment about the veto yesterday.
Freedman, who was a member of the advisory committee, has said that he will abide by the design rules - whatever they say. He called the bill "half-baked."
"I'm glad it was vetoed, because it wasn't good legislation," Freedman said.
Council colleagues said Samorajczyk, who spent much of last week reviewing the development agreement and planning files, was disappointed.
Council member Cathleen M. Vitale, who also voted in favor of the bill, said she was angry that no one from the county thought to notify Samorajczyk that she had an old version of the design standards manual, a glitch that Owens cited in her veto statement. A consultant for the county gave Samoraj- czyk the wrong version.
Vitale said that Owens' veto put the county at risk. "You can look around Anne Arundel County and see where buildings were built and then a design standard was implemented for the rest of the project, and the building that went up first clearly stands out," she said. "We still need to see to it that those design standards are submitted."