Zoning battle won by residents


In an unusual turn of events that astonished even the people who had hoped it would happen, Highland residents fighting plans for a large funeral home at their small commercial crossroads have won without giving a single minute of testimony.

Howard County's hearing examiner ruled Friday that the funeral home developer did not prove that the proposal meets local requirements.

It is a joyous moment for residents of this small southern Howard town. The crossroads at Route 108 and Highland Road is their community center, a quaint throwback to a rural past, dotted with businesses such as the Boarman family's country market and the Grey Pony Saddlery.

Residents and some business owners feared that the funeral home would overwhelm Highland with a building three times larger than some of the others nearby and with cars that might have nowhere to park.

But few expected that they would get their way - at least until appeals start - without having to say a word. Hearing Examiner Thomas P. Carbo said he cannot think of another development case decided mid-stream after supporters offered their views but before opponents took their turn.

"Wow - wow!" exclaimed Dan O'Leary, president of the Greater Highland Crossroads Association, when he heard about the decision. "Well, I'm stunned, but I can't say that I'm completely surprised."

The association's attorney, William E. Erskine, broke from tradition last month and asked for the early decision in a 34-page motion, after funeral home advocates finished making their case.

David A. Carney, the lawyer representing the developer, Souder Builders, said he would take the case to the county Board of Appeals. He was not upset by the early ruling because he figured an appeal was inevitable, whether from him or from residents.

"I see it as an acceleration of the process," Carney said.

Souder Builders had requested permission to construct a roughly 12,000-square-foot building on 3 acres at the crossroads. Donaldson Funeral Home, based in Laurel, wants to use the facility.

The plans called for a 120-seat chapel and 45 parking spaces, one of the key points of contention.

Highland residents did not see how 45 parking spaces would be enough and could not imagine where extra cars would go. No off-street parking is available near the intersection, which has narrow roads and frequent traffic snarls.

Jay Donaldson of Donaldson Funeral Home testified in November that he did not foresee problems because the parking lot is "usually empty" at his Laurel location, which seats 114 people in the chapel and can handle 61 cars.

Carbo agreed with opponents.

"I find that the Petitioner has failed to suggest any set of facts that might reasonably support the conclusions that ... the parking areas for the proposed funeral home will be of adequate size," he wrote in his decision.

Carney said yesterday that the 3-acre property has plenty of room beyond the 45 proposed spaces for people to park.

"We're just going to show the additional parking spaces to the Board of Appeals," he said.

The hearing examiner also found insufficient evidence to grant a variance the developer requested. But Carbo, noting that "compatibility" doesn't necessarily mean "equivalence," disagreed with opponents that the scale of the building was inappropriate.

"In this case, the Petitioner has shown that the proposed funeral home building, while larger in actual size, is set well back from the road and from other nearby structures, thus reducing its visual impact on the area," he wrote.

Without the funeral home, the Greater Highland Crossroads Association might never have come to be. When residents organized last year to fight the proposal, they quickly decided to use the momentum to do other work in the community - from handling problems such as traffic to taking oral histories of longtime residents to discussing the future of the community.

Dues are $100 a year. About 100 families and businesses have joined - close to 10 percent of Highland.

"Lots of good has come out of this," O'Leary said.

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