Like practiced players in a long-running drama, scores of people trying to block or defend a proposed 23-story condominium tower in Columbia descended on a Howard County Council public hearing Monday night for what turned out to be two days of testimony about two bills that could derail the project.
George Barker said he and his wife moved to Columbia in 1972, and "35 years later we still don't have a city or anything like it." He favors the proposed tower near Columbia's lakefront and all the new shops, restaurants and outdoor spaces likely to come with a redevelopment of town center.
The two bills sponsored by Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, "represent a threat to that opportunity," he said. Others from the county's business community predicted lasting damage if the bills -- which they believe are aimed at just the one tower project -- are approved.
But Alan Klein of the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, a group trying to block the tower, which they see as large building that will dwarf the rest of Town Center, said his group has "almost 400 supporters" who "have no vested interest in the decision other than the quality of life."
He urged the council members to "protect the human scale of Columbia" and not "bow to special interests." He quoted each council member expressing doubt or opposition to the tower's height during last year's election campaigns.
Because of time taken for comment on other bills, including one to require environmental testing of old golf courses where development is planned -- such as Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center -- the council heard from fewer than half of the more than 90 people who had signed up to speak on the tower issue Monday night.
Despite starting Monday's session an hour early, a second session was convened at 4 p.m. yesterday to hear the remaining testimony. The council will discuss the bills at a 3:30 p.m. work session Sept. 24 before a vote Oct. 1.
"It's our opportunity to hear from the public," said council Chairman Calvin Ball, as a determined Councilwoman Courtney Watson tried to shoo the five members to their seats for a quick start on the tower testimony.
Sigaty represents the west Columbia area where developer WCI Communities has begun construction of the 275-foot-tall building. The county Planning Board has recommended against passage of both of Sigaty's bills -- one to set a 150-foot height limit on buildings in Columbia until a master redevelopment plan is adopted, and the other to allow the 160-unit Plaza Residences to be blocked by a pending court action.
It is also possible that the project may be legally vested, or protected from any new legislation, if the construction work progresses far enough by the time a law could take effect in December.
Most of the early speakers at Monday's hearing represented the county's business community and lambasted the bills and Sigaty's attempt to block the tower. The outcome of the vote by the council on the issue is uncertain.
"This is a legislative end-around to invalidate an already approved project. It subverts the administrative appeal process," said lawyer William Erskine, a member of the county Chamber of Commerce's legislative committee, who spoke for the business group.
County business leaders said they see Sigaty's bills as an attempt to stop a project already under way with retroactive legislation, a contention that the bill's supporters deny. Erskine and other executives said the bills, if approved, would send a message that businesses can follow all the rules of the county's often lengthy and cumbersome development process, spend substantial money on a project, and still be stopped.
The bills, if passed, would destroy any expectation of predictability for business investment, Erskine and others said. In addition, opponents of the bills argued, the tower represents Smart Growth, environmental progress and the kind of density needed to get more subsidized housing for limited-income families -- although the Plaza Residence building will not have any moderate-income housing.
Alec Adams, the attorney for the tower critics, said, "What this is about, is about the dollar." The developers stand to make $60 [million] to $100 million more by selling condominiums for $500,000 and up, rather than building an office structure. "You can have an urban environment without this height," he said.
He, like other opponents, said the county government allowed the project to go forward too easily.
"The county is complicit in greasing the skids on this," Adams said, adding that the county fire department had no comment on the project, even though the building would be far higher than the 14 or 15 stories of any other structure in the county.
Lloyd Knowles, one of four plaintiffs in a court action attempting to stop the project, said the bills would not put a damper on business. One of the bills that critics say applies restrictions retroactively would apply only in limited circumstances, Knowles said, where a regulation has changed and a case is under appeal. "It would not endanger all projects," he said, adding that he believes the tower "was approved illegally."
Jay Bonstingl, a resident since 1974 and a business owner, said "there is a vast preponderance of business people who do not want a replica of Manhattan to sprout around our lakes. There must be a height limitation."