Eldersburg townhouse plan goes back to court

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The fate of a long-planned townhouse development in Eldersburg rests with the courts, for the second time in its 10- year history.

A Circuit Court judge has scheduled a hearing Thursday on a petition to force Carroll County to approve a plan for 254 rental units on a 20-acre parcel along Kali Drive near Ridge Road. The attorney for Carrolltowne Development Partnership filed a petition for contempt in October, soon after the county planning commission denied a site plan for the project.

The Carrolltowne saga dates to 1995 and has so frayed tempers that the developer filed the contempt petition, asking that planning board members be incarcerated, including County Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, until the project wins approval.

Gouge and other members of the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission are defendants in the contempt suit.

Members of the Board of Zoning Appeals, which upheld the planning commission's denial of the project, have offered to accompany their colleagues to jail.

Eldersburg residents, exasperated with crowded roads and schools, organized a petition drive and gathered more than 250 signatures from those opposed to the project. Several residents plan to attend the hearing.

However, county attorney Kimberly Millender said, "There will be no opportunity for the public to be heard at the hearing. A quorum of the planning commission will be present."

'Safety issues'

Resident Cheryl Franceschi, who organized the petition drive, said Eldersburg is burdened with crowded schools, congested roads and seasonal water shortages. The volunteer fire company, one of the busiest in Carroll County, is experiencing problems meeting the demand for its services.

"The strain on everything down here is visible," said Franceschi. "The developer has a right to develop his land, but he has to take this environment into account. We don't have water. Every school in the area has portables. There are so many safety issues."

Benjamin Rosenberg, attorney for the developer, denounced what he called the county's "delay tactics," adding that officials cannot cite 2004 criteria to deny the building plan.

When Franceschi asked Gouge last week what will happen in court Thursday, Gouge sighed.

"I would love to know, because I don't want to go to jail," she answered.

Millender said she does not expect to visit Gouge at the county detention center.

Pending concerns

If the judge rules for an immediate approval of the development, the county would file an immediate appeal, Millender said. Several court issues are pending, including Carrolltowne's petition for judicial review that was filed last month in Carroll Circuit Court. The county has filed its intent to participate in the review, she said.

"The developer has not exhausted the administrative process," said Millender. "You have to go through the process and seek available administrative remedies. We have filed a motion to dismiss this petition for contempt, in order to allow the administrative process to run its course."

Carrolltowne Development Partnership first attempted to build the townhouses in 1995. The planning commission refused to approve the site plan then and again a year later, but the Circuit Court for Carroll County reversed those decisions and ordered the commission to approve the development in 1999.

The county commissioners did not appeal the judge's ruling, and the developer did not move forward with the project, choosing to pursue the possibility of commercial uses for the same 20-acre parcel.

When the county removed the business zoning from the land, the developer revived the residential plan and brought it to the planning commission last August -- five years after the judge's decision.

Out of time

The planning commission told the developer that time had run out, citing the county's policy that a project must move forward within 18 months of the site plan's filing or the review process must start anew.

When it denied the plan last year, the commission also pointed to crowded schools and roads and an inadequate water supply. The Board of Zoning Appeals upheld that decision.

"There is no water allocated for a projected 254-unit project, none," Gouge said.

Contempt charge

Rosenberg filed a lawsuit Oct. 22 accusing the commission of "constructive civil contempt" and asked that commission members be jailed for refusing to approve the site plan. He said, at that time, that the contempt citation was "the only legal remedy that exists when a party refuses to comply with a judge's order."

Rosenberg said Friday that he would have no comment before the hearing and would comment only after it, if he feels it is appropriate.

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