Residents unite, again, to do battle over fate of neighboring property


What is believed to be the last vacant residential lot in Columbia's Wilde Lake village sits at the entrance to the Flowertuft Court cul-de-sac - a precious rarity in the planned suburb.

Time after time, developers have proposed homes for the lot and, time after time, they have been turned down by the village review board because their plans did not meet the village covenant guidelines.

The problem: Most of the lot lies in a flood plain, leaving room for only an unusually shaped home that doesn't reflect the traditional character of the community.

Despite previous failed attempts - about five proposals have been turned down so far - builder Clayton R. Marshall is trying to construct a home on the lot.

Marshall faces staunch opposition from the 15 homeowners on the cul-de-sac, who appear to be united in their effort to prevent his house from being built.

To residents, the continuing efforts to build on the lot make life in the neighborhood something like a never-ending battle. The homeowners' general in the struggle is Bob Velke, who lives next door to the lot.

Velke says he doesn't want to wake up every morning and look out his master bedroom window to see his view blocked by the proposed 70-foot-wide side of a triangular-shaped house that would be about 5 feet from his property line.

"When you'd look out the window, you'd see nothing but house," he said. "It's an obnoxious home, the way it's shaped."

Velke and his neighbors fear that what Velke describes as a "pillbox" house will disrupt the uniformity on the street lined with Colonial-style homes and harm property values.

"We're not opposed to anyone building on that lot," said Don Wheeler, who also lives on the street. "We are opposed to building something that's not consistent with the character of the neighborhood."

The house will "look like a Howard Johnson," Wheeler said. "As you turn the corner, it'll look like a hotel."

Marshall, with DRM Construction, hung up when a reporter called him at home. His lawyers, Richard B. Talkin and Lynn A. Robeson, in Ellicott City, did not return repeated phone calls.

Marshall is trying to win approval for the house from the Wilde Lake village board and the county. He has not been successful.

Last year, Wilde Lake's residential architectural review committee approved Marshall's application to build on the lot. But the village architectural committee - which approves the residential committee's recommendations - rejected the application in August.

Builder sought advice

At a village board meeting in January, Marshall sought advice about how to construct a house that would meet the covenants.

Each of Columbia's 10 villages has its own set of covenants, which govern the exterior appearance of homes, including everything from house color to lawn ornaments.

"As you know, I am forced to site the house on a very difficult area, and I created a house to fit that area," Marshall told the village board. "It is not a square box - it can't be at this point."

John Hannay, village board chairman, said he told Marshall some of the architectural committee's suggestions, such as additional landscaping to avoid the look of a solid wall facing Velke's home, as well as changing the roof line.

Velke is suspicious of the board's advice to Marshall. He fears the builder's proposal will ultimately be approved. He has written a timeline of the lot's history, color-coded to highlight his suspicions: "Deception" is magenta; "Bias, contempt, or unfair treatment," turquoise; and "The case against the house," yellow.

But Hannay said the board is taking "adequate measures and in some instances more than adequate measures" to be open and fair in the process.

"This is a difficult situation," he said. "We're trying to be fair to the various parties that are involved."

Velke also attended the January board meeting and said it was a "sham," accusing some board members of meeting in "secret" with Marshall and his attorney before the session to give him private advice before the public dialogue.

Hannay denied the board was giving Marshall special treatment. He said three board members and the village covenant adviser met with Marshall and his attorney to review the application process, and he characterized it as "an appointment."

"We told him to get formal [advice], he had to go to a public meeting," Hannay told Velke.

Last month, the five-member residential architectural review committee denied another application that Marshall submitted Jan. 29, with some committee members saying the application was incomplete.

Small changes made

The plan was similar to the last application, with some small changes such as moving the front door to face Columbia Road, adding some landscaping and changing some venting on the peaks of the roof, said Jim Meale, a committee member.

Meale said he voted against Marshall's application because the proposed house doesn't mesh with the "very distinct Colonial flavor" of the neighborhood.

"It's a very long and narrow house," he said. "I don't think it would have been proposed this way if it wasn't for the flood plain issue."

Helen Kolbe, the only member of the residential architectural review committee who voted in favor of the application, declined to explain her vote, saying, "I think it's not a proper thing for [committee] members to discuss" after the group ruled on it.

Panel meets tomorrow

Tomorrow, the village's architectural committee is to select a date to consider Marshall's application. Hannay said the committee will determine whether the application is complete.

Velke contends that Marshall's application should be invalid, claiming it lacks some of the required documents. He also fears that the 60-day deadline the architectural committee has to rule on the application after it is submitted - or the application is automatically approved - is quickly winding down, not allowing the residents sufficient time to properly review the application and hire experts to help fight their case.

In October, the county Department of Planning and Zoning turned down Marshall's petition to build in the flood plain. He is appealing the decision, and the case is scheduled to go before the county hearing examiner April 23.

Marshall bought the lot last year for $15,000 from the previous owner who paid $50,000 for it in 2000. The state assesses the lot at almost $50,000, with the full amount to be phased in by July.

Velke, who has lived on Flowertuft for five years, said he would be happy if Marshall won his appeal with the county and constructed a home in the flood plain that would conform with the rest of the homes on the street.

He's so adamant that Marshall's proposed house should not be constructed that he said he has hired a law firm in Washington to help his case and protect his neighborhood's homes.

"If we have to, we'll sue [the architectural committee] for the cost it'll have on our property values," Velke said.

Meale said that in his three years serving on the residential architectural committee, he has seen only a handful of cases that have been as contentious as the Flowertuft lot, noting the united residents.

"To have that kind of unanimity ... I would say is unusual, even with controversial cases," he said.

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