A simmering controversy over a proposed office building next to the historic Woodlawn Manor in Columbia is now a fierce fight between a developer and preservationists -- with Howard County Council members in the middle.
The focal point of the clash is a bill that would allow office buildings or their parking lots to be 10 feet from open space or multifamily developments instead of 30 feet, which is the current standard. If the bill passes, it would apply countywide, though the current argument is over one project. The County Council is to vote July 3.
County planners believe the bill is a way to push a building to be located off Bendix Road a bit farther from a historic house and closer to a nearby industrial building. But preservationists emphatically disagree.
"If you pave paradise and put up a parking lot, bad karma is bound to follow," J. William Miller told the council at a public hearing Monday night. He spoke about the bill that would affect a 74,000-square-foot, two-story building that developer D. Ronald Brasher wants to build next to the 19th-century Woodlawn house.
Miller called Brasher a "renegade developer" for cutting down recently a stand of 150- to 250-year-old trees near Woodlawn. He went on to call the bill, which changes zoning setback standards countywide, "reckless and unwarranted" because, he and other preservationists argue, general standards would change for the benefit of one or two specific projects.
"If you think a 74,000-square-foot office building 25 feet from a historic building is OK -- it's not OK with me," said Miller, who identified himself as a former landscape architect for the old Rouse Co.
Brasher said he is committed to restoring the deteriorating old house, using profits from the office building. He has left a half-acre around the house to buffer it, he testified.
Miller's testimony was "egregious, slanderous and inaccurate," Brasher said, explaining that the bill would allow the office building to be farther from the historic house, helping to buffer it. He is committed to its restoration, he said, which will cost at least $750,000.
"Mr. Miller is not going to put up $750,000," he said. The old trees had to come down, Brasher said, because a tree expert he hired to examine them concluded they were mostly hollow and slowly dying. Four have fallen on their own over the past 18 months, he said, including one that missed the house by 50 feet.
Brasher pointed out that he could build a five-story office building but is committed to preserving what he called "a nice historic house." Asked by Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat whose district includes the site, whether he has tried to work with the community to resolve problems, Brasher said he has but is frustrated.
"It seems to me to be a situation of take, and take and take and no give," he said about his dealing with community people.
Dennis Mattey testified that the Columbia Association board of directors "vigorously opposes" the bill, which would cut setback distances from 30 feet to 10 feet for land zoned for offices that is next to open space. The Columbia Association, Mattey said, owns more than 3,000 acres of open space in Columbia alone.
In addition, the change would "jeopardize" the fragile former slave quarters on association-owned land next to the Woodlawn site, he said.
Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, also assailed the bill as overkill -- changing setback standards countywide when a specific waiver for this one project might be more appropriate.
"What eludes us is why the council would even consider this bill," she said. "Rewriting law to address a single site design issue for a single property is bad business. It is the slippery slope to bad planning and zoning."
She added that citizens cannot keep track of all the changes in county zoning laws and regulations if they are done by the County Council and by the same members sitting as the Zoning Board.
Ann Jones, representing the Howard County Citizens Association, also was opposed, arguing that "if anything, setback from open space should be increased."
After the hearing, county Planning Director Marsha S. McLaughlin said Brasher's project might not qualify for a waiver or variance because it is a relatively flat piece of land, while variances are normally issued to address land with difficult features such as steep slopes.
On the other hand, she said the income from the office building "could be the permanent solution for [preserving] the house." She also noted that Brasher could demolish the house if he wanted to. "I have no control over him," she said.
An amendment to the bill might help, she said.
Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said after the meeting that he is against the bill.
But Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, was less certain, adding that he wants to work with McLaughlin on the problem.