Tower a go, WCI asserts

The Baltimore Sun

A Florida developer intends to build the contested 23-story condominium tower in Columbia's Town Center, according to a top official of the firm.

William Rowe, vice president of WCI Communities, would not predict when construction might begin, but after watching the Howard County Planning Board decisively turn back two zoning amendments Thursday night that might have blocked the project, he vowed that the building would go up.

"We ultimately are going to build the project because it's good for Town Center," he said. "I'm very pleased."

The Planning Board rejected each amendment by a 4-0 vote. They were offered by County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat. Her amendments would have limited building heights to 150 feet until a new downtown master plan is completed and make Planning Board approvals of projects remain "pending" if the project is challenged by an administrative appeal or a lawsuit.

The issue arose several years ago when WCI sought and eventually received building permits for the tower, which is to rise on a small lot where Columbia's first movie theater once stood, close to Lake Kittamaqundi.

The building would have several levels of parking, retail shops at street level and 22 stories of residences over them that would be higher than any building in the planned town.

There is no limit on building heights in Columbia and because WCI's application began processing before the planning for Town Center's redevelopment began, it was not included in that review. Business interests argue that WCI has invested heavily in planning and promoting the building, and with building permits in hand, it would be unfair to allow a retroactive change in the law to derail the project.

But some residents, including several who live in a midrise condominium next to the tower site, objected, arguing that such a tall building would hurt Columbia's aesthetics and overshadow other structures.

Candidates in last fall's elections -- such as Sigaty and then-Councilman Ken Ulman, who was elected county executive, agreed.

Ulman, a Democrat, has been trying ever since his election in November to broker a compromise, perhaps by moving the tower to a lower lot next to General Growth Properties Inc. headquarters building and cutting the height to 18 stories.

Despite the lopsided Planning Board votes rejecting her ideas, Sigaty said she is not giving up. She watched the hourlong meeting from the audience in the council chambers in Ellicott City.

"I will take their reservations under advisement," she said. "I'm going to study what their reasons are."

The unanimous votes, with member Ramsey Alexander Jr. absent, do not matter to her, she said. The zoning amendments will be introduced as County Council bills, she said.

Joel Broida, one of several tower opponents who attended the hearing, said he is not giving up either.

"We've still got our appeal," he said.

Lloyd Knowles, a former County Council member and another opponent, said he believes it was clear from board members' comments during several nights of public hearings on the tower what their decision would be. When the first vote was taken after a half-hour of discussion, Knowles joked about the chances of tower critics in the second vote.

"Let's go home and get a beer," he said.

Board members made their feelings clear.

With a master plan for redeveloping central Columbia under consideration and the competing needs of affordable housing, open space conservation and design flexibility, members said they are not interested in imposing a temporary height limit or in allowing processed business plans to become vulnerable to last-minute appeals.

"I don't think there was a consensus for a height limit" in the weeklong planning charrette on Columbia's future held in October 2005, said board Chairwoman Tammy CitaraManis. "I didn't hear anything that suggested we have a real problem in New Town [Columbia's zoning designation]."

"There's no other [tower] project in that pipeline," said Gary Rosenbaum, a board member. "It's too early for this [height] legislation."

Linda Dombrowski, another board member, also objected to the zoning changes.

"It's pre-empting the judicial review and appeal process" on the tower that is under way, she said.

CitaraManis agreed.

"I don't understand why we aren't letting the legal system work," she said.

Said Dave Grabowski, the fourth member present: "To me, there is no pressing need for this legislation at this time."

On the second amendment involving retroactivity, the board felt the same way.

Deputy County Solicitor Paul Johnson, the board's legal adviser, told members that the county often has "grandfathered" projects deep into the county's approval process to protect them from being subject to changes in zoning law.

"To me, if we're going to change the regulations, there has to be a need," said CitaraManis.

Others said the time to make changes is early in the process or before it formally begins, not after building permits are issued.

"This legislation is kind of scary to the business community," said Rosenbaum, the former owner of a retail card store in Columbia. "A project can go all the way and be stopped late in the process."

"I agree," Grabowski said. "We have a process in place that has worked."

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