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Plan to build houses on airstrip fails


The Anne Arundel County Council shot down last night a developer's plan to transform a small west-county airport into a dense housing development, ending a protracted debate that one member called the council's most contentious in more than five years.

The decision announced by Councilman Bill D. Burlison last night followed hours of testimony by some of the more than 250 people who packed the Arundel Center in Annapolis. Supporters went as far as to say approving the development would have helped save lives. Opponents said it would have overcrowded the Laurel area and closed a beloved old airport.

In its preliminary plan, Polm Cos. of Millersville called for 641 condominiums and townhomes at Suburban Airport, the Laurel airstrip that houses nearly 70 planes. To build the development, called RiverWood, Rick Polm needed the county to rezone the 54-acre tract off Brock Bridge Road.

The county government is in the final stages of implementing its small-area plan for that part of Anne Arundel, and last night was the final opportunity for the council to amend the plan to allow the development. As the parcel is zoned, Polm - who is under contract to buy the land - could build only about two dozen homes on the property.

In a short speech, Burlison announced that in deciding not to introduce a pro-development amendment, he was siding with his constituents. Any of the other council members also could have introduced an amendment to allow RiverWood, but Burlison, a Democrat, represents the affected area.

So the issue died without a vote.

Polm said immediately after the meeting that he would soon begin expanding the airport to a 300-plane facility.

He made his initial development pitch in December, promoting RiverWood as "work force housing." Half the homes would have been priced between $190,000 and $300,000, Polm said.

He said they would have been ideal for teachers, police officers and firefighters in a county where the average home price is more than $280,000. He also promised that if the development were approved, he would repair Brock Bridge Road, the narrow and flood-prone path to the proposed development.

At the first council meeting in which it was discussed, the development plan drew mostly criticism from pilots and residents.

Then it started gaining momentum.

John Pantelides, a consultant hired by Polm Cos., announced that the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce and the county's teachers union supported the plan.

Last night's crowd was split. At times, the crowded council chambers sounded like a miniature version of Reliant Stadium in Houston the night before.

"Ladies and gentleman," Council Vice Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr. told the crowd after rowdy cheering and booing, "the Super Bowl was yesterday. No more of that."

Supporters of RiverWood spoke first: "We are losing our best and brightest teachers to surrounding jurisdictions," county teachers union President Sheila Finlayson said. "In part, that is because teachers can't afford to live where they work."

Opponents, wearing "Stop RiverWood" pins, said the development would crowd their roads and schools.

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