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Tower compromise sought

The Baltimore Sun

Compromise sought on high-rise General Growth Properties Inc., the principal owner and developer of Columbia, has launched two initiatives to jumpstart the stalled luxury high-rise overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi.

The first involves behind-the-scenes discussions to defuse the divisiveness over the project by attempting to reach a compromise with those who have filed legal challenges to the tower.

The second is a campaign to build opposition to County Council legislation aimed at scuttling the multimillion-dollar project.

Both endeavors come about a week before the Planning Board is scheduled to hold hearings on the legislation, introduced by County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty.

The bills would amend zoning laws, imposing a height limit and curtailing the authority of the Planning Board on contested projects. The provisions would be applied retroactively to the tower.

If a compromise is possible before Tuesday's hearing, and that is far from certain, it could reduce the pressure on officials to consider favorably Sigaty's legislation.

The settlement talks involve General Growth, Richard B. Talkin, an attorney for the developer of the project, and E. Alexander Adams, a lawyer representing four residents who are challenging approval of the tower.

"We are still trying to work with the litigants -- we, meaning the county and General Growth -- to see if we can come up with a compromise," said Douglas M. Godine, vice president and general manager of Mid-Atlantic operations for General Growth. "We will propose what we believe is a compromise. I don't know if the litigants will accept or reject [the offer]. I have no idea."

The opponents and the developer of the proposed high-rise, Florida-based WCI Communities Inc., have been separated by substantive differences for more than a year.

Joel H. Broida, one of the litigants in the case, said he is skeptical that an accord can be reached.

"I think our stand is to get to the merits of the case," he said. "I think we are unanimous in how we feel."

WCI has proposed building The Plaza Residences at Columbia Town Center, a $70 million, 275-foot residential and retail complex.

The 23-story structure would be the tallest building in the county and offer retail shops at ground level and 160 condominiums on 22 stories, with prices beginning in the $600,000s and topping $2 million for penthouses.

The Planning Board last year approved WCI's site development plan, and the county has issued all necessary permits, clearing the way for construction to begin.

WCI, however, has not begun work, and company executives have declined to discuss their plans while legal challenges continue against the high-rise.

Some have suggested that WCI's own difficulties have stalled the project. The company has recently struggled amid a downturn in the high-end housing market and has scrapped or delayed some projects. It reported this month that net income for the last fiscal year, ending Dec. 31, fell to $9 million from $186.2 million in the comparable period the previous year. Even more telling were the fourth-quarter results: a loss of $64.6 million, compared with a profit of $54.6 million a year earlier.

And WCI has been fighting an unsolicited takeover bid led by billionaire Carl Icahn.

But Godine said, "The building process has stopped due to litigation causing financial damage to WCI."

Although the opponents have raised numerous objections, the height of the proposed high-rise has been at the center of the dispute and prompted criticism from several community groups and citizens.

The Planning Board is to consider Tuesday two bills introduced by Sigaty that are aimed directly at WCI's project. '

The legislation would impose:

A height limit of 150 feet, smaller if the final plan for converting downtown Columbia into an urban center is more restrictive.

A provision rendering any formal decision and order by the Planning Board as "pending" and not final if approval of a project is challenged either through the county's regulatory process or the courts.

Both measures have sparked heated debate, because they would retroactively affect the proposed tower.

Godine said he believes the courts would declare the legislation illegal if enacted, and he cautioned the council and County Executive Ken Ulman not to abandon the county's regulatory process.

Ulman has urged a settlement. He also has threatened to block construction of the high-rise, although he has not said how that would be accomplished.

In a letter to business and civic leaders in the county, Godine characterized Sigaty's legislation as an "attempt to circumvent the public approval process and reverse the decision of a public board."

Enactment of the legislation, Godine wrote, would "create an atmosphere of uncertainty and ambiguity as to proposed new development. ... It is paramount that business be able to depend upon a predictable administration of the county's regulations and processes in order to grow and expand. If these bills pass, they will establish a principle that it is acceptable for the county to interfere with or stop a project even though the county has already issued the necessary permits."

Sigaty's office declined to respond to several requests for an interview.

The Business Alliance, a newly formed advocacy arm of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, recently criticized Sigaty's legislation, saying the bills would signal a lack of predictability in doing business in the county.

Although Godine would prefer a settlement with the opponents of the tower, Broida said it is difficult to imagine acceptable terms.

Some, including Broida last August, suggested moving the tower, perhaps to property behind GGP's regional headquarters or the 51.7-acre crescent, the area next to Merriweather Post Pavilion, and the single largest parcel of undeveloped land downtown.

But Broida said that would simply transfer the problem. "That's not right of me to say, 'I don't want it in my place but someone else can get stuck with it.' That's not right," he said.

At the heart of the opponents' challenge is the contention that 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, he says, must make such decisions.

They also claim that the number of residential units approved for development vastly exceeds that permitted in downtown Columbia.

County officials have said the tower complies with all regulations and that there is no legal basis on which to reverse approval of the project.

And that, Godine said, makes his case. Once a development is approved, "If ... it's stopped by a group of citizens who do not like that particular architecture of a building, then that's questioning the whole legislative process of the county," he said. "And I don't think we can have that."

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