Tower bills' vote looms

The Baltimore Sun

Members of the Howard County Council hope a compromise can be worked out before a scheduled vote next week on legislation intended to block construction of a 23-story condominium proposed for downtown Columbia.

"For everybody's sake, it would be great if a compromise could be reached," Councilman Greg Fox said yesterday. "I'm concerned about us doing anything that is a legislative runaround to what's going on in the court system."

Council members are optimistic that a meeting of interested parties to help pave the way for compromise can be held before the council vote Monday. Such a meeting had not been scheduled as of yesterday afternoon.

At issue is whether a tower under construction by WCI Communities near Columbia's lakefront will be allowed to proceed in the wake of two bills proposed by Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who represents the district in which the tower is being built.

One of her bills would set a 150-foot height limit on buildings in Columbia until a master development plan is adopted, and the other would allow the 160-unit Plaza Residences to be blocked by a pending court action. The county Planning Board has recommended against passage of either bill.

It is also possible that the project may be legally vested, or protected from any new legislation, if construction work progresses far enough by the time a law could take effect in December.

County business leaders view Sigaty's bills as an attempt to halt a project that is under way, using retroactive legislation. Some members of community groups are concerned that the tall building will dwarf the rest of Town Center.

Part of the discussion at Monday's council work session, attended by about 40 people, centered on whether council members had enough information about the history of the project to make a sound decision.

"I don't think this council is fully informed," Councilwoman Courtney Watson said. "I feel like we don't have the people we need here to have a robust discussion. I think it's important to do that in public."

Sigaty said she would not support an amendment to her bill that would exclude the tower project.

"My thinking is to impose a height limit that holds the status quo and then is superceded by a master plan for downtown," she said. "The goal is to ensure that instead of having piecemeal development around downtown, we have a comprehensive downtown planning process."

But Fox countered. "The reality is, tons of things have been happening without planning for a long time," he said.

"Do you draw a line in the sand and make it retroactive going forward?" he asked. "That's a different thing."

Watson also voiced concerns about the implications of taking action once a project is under way.

"The idea of a business going in and getting its permits and then having the rug pulled out from under it is bothering me," Watson said in the work session.

"I think we're obligated to provide as predictable an environment as possible for business in the county," she said in an interview yesterday. "It doesn't serve the county well if the county is seen as an unpredictable place for business and if the rules are changing."

Calvin Ball, chairman of the council, said during the work session that he was concerned about doing anything that could conflict with pending litigation involving the tower.

"How in-depth should we be having a discussion that could impact a pending court case?" he asked. "We are separate from the administration. I don't want our hands to be tied by the county's lawsuit."

Four plaintiffs had filed a court action attempting to stop the project.

"I think it's detrimental for the community as a whole for this issue to be unresolved," Watson said yesterday regarding Sigaty's bills. "I hesitate to table it for 30 days."

Among the six bills on Monday's council agenda, one requiring soil and water testing for the commercial or residential redevelopment of golf courses appears headed for passage.

The matter became an issue in the mixed-use residential-commercial community planned for Turf Valley after opponents of the project contended that owners of the 809-acre golf-hotel resort concealed a test that showed arsenic levels 60 times higher than normal near a shed on the property.

That project calls for more than 1,300 residential units, a nursing home and office and retail buildings, with construction on the condo units near Marriottsville Road starting as early as next summer.

"We want this to apply to all golf courses," said Lee Walker Oxenham, the Sierra Club's representative on County Executive Ken Ulman's Commission on the Environment and Sustainability. "The reason golf courses are different is because they are routinely subjected to a barrage of chemicals -- legally."

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