Ruling near in tower debate

Closing arguments were a study in sharply contrasting strategies as the final hour encroaches in the prolonged and sometimes abrasive hearings on the proposed multimillion-dollar luxury tower in downtown Columbia.

Attorney Richard B. Talkin, representing the developer, never veered from the sanctity of case law and declaring that the challengers to the luxury skyscraper failed absolutely to meet the standards to permit the case to continue.


Counsel for the opponents, E. Alexander Adams, though citing case law as well, made more of an appeal for democracy, pleading for the county's regulatory system not to slam the door in the face of citizens and to extend a full examination of their grievances.

Which of the strategies was better received will not be known until tomorrow, when the Board of Appeals reconvenes to either summarily dismiss the challenge against the 23-story luxury residential and retail tower or grant new hearings on the heart of the opponents' case.


Before the latter may occur, the board must conclude that the opponents have legal standing to appeal the county's approval of The Plaza Residences at Columbia Town Center.

Although the appeal was filed on behalf of four county residents, the board needs only to declare that one of them has legal standing for the case to proceed. In the absence of such a ruling, the hearings will cease, forcing the opponents to give up their fight or file a lawsuit in Circuit Court, a lengthy and costly proposition.

Through six nights of hearings, the fight has been limited to the single issue of legal standing.

Talkin filed a motion to dismiss the case, alleging that none of the four appellants meets the standard, which requires that one must have been a party to the Planning Board's case and be "specially aggrieved," or harmed differently than the general public, by the board's decision.

Maryland courts, he said, have ruled that appellants must demonstrate adverse economic impact.

"There has to be proof of some economic impact," Talkin said Thursday night. "... They have not and cannot prove decline in [property] value."

He said that the opponents' case lacks substance and that they are, in effect, grasping at straws. "All of their evidence was speculative," Talkin said in his closing argument. "... They have just come in and put on pure speculation."

Adams decried the tussle over legal standing as a tactic to evade the substantive issues raised in the appeal.


"What this is about is illegality," he told the board.

Adams said Talkin and the developer, Florida-based WCI Communities Inc., are trying "to avoid having to respond to the legal challenge."

He said that two of his clients have "presumptive legal standing" because they live directly across the street from where the tower would be built.

He implored the Board of Appeals to permit the case to advance.

"All we're asking is to hear our illegality issue," Adams said. "... We may lose it, but let's see. ... The citizens should have the right to come together and object to an illegal act."

An earlier appeal by Adams was dismissed by then-Hearing Examiner Thomas P. Carbo, who ruled in June that the opponents lacked legal standing. The latest appeal seeks to overturn that decision, as well as to gain a full hearing on the merits of the opponents' case. The opponents say the county violated many of its regulations when the Planning Board last January approved the plan by WCI to build a $70 million, 275-foot residential and retail complex overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi. The project would include 160 condominiums on 22 stories.


The challenge to the development was initiated by county residents Jo Ann Stolley, Joel Broida, Stephen Meskin and Lloyd Knowles.

It is widely believed that any hope of winning the fight over legal standing rests with Stolley and Broida, because they live less than 200 feet from where the tower would be constructed, while the others live a far greater distance, and it is not clear they would be adversely affected by the tower any more than the general public.

The case for Stolley and Broida appeared to be bolstered Wednesday night when a real estate appraiser testified that construction of the tower would lower the value of their units at The Lakeside at Town Center condominium complex directly across the street from the site of WCI's proposed development.

"It is my opinion, that after reviewing the information available and visiting the site, that the construction of a building of the magnitude of the Plaza property will have an adverse impact on the marketability and sale prices of the existing condominium units in the Lakeside project," said Thomas Pirritano, vice president of Pirritano & Associates Inc.

But skepticism of Pirritano's study was voiced by the Board of Appeals and attacked as irrelevant and speculative by another attorney for WCI, S. Scott Morrison of the Washington-based firm Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, because formal appraisals were not conducted.

The appeal, in part, alleges that:


The Planning Board illegally permitted residential uses on the site of the proposed tower, because the property was zoned for commercial uses.

County regulations "constitute an unlawful delegation" of authority by allowing the Planning Board to determine the height of buildings in downtown Columbia. Either the Zoning Board or County Council, Adams contends, must make such decisions.

The number of residential units approved for development vastly exceeded that permitted in downtown Columbia.

Talkin and county officials have consistently contended that the Planning Board acted within its jurisdiction and that WCI's project complies with all regulations.