Talks on tower advance

The Baltimore Sun

The sponsor of legislation intended to block construction of a 23-story tower in downtown Columbia plans to ask the County Council to table her bills for 30 days in hopes that a compromise can be reached, after a lengthy, closed-door meeting of interested parties.

"There was agreement in the room that it had been a productive day and we needed to talk some more," Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said after Friday's meeting. Sigaty represents the district where the 160-unit Plaza Residences is being built and is the sponsor of the two bills.

Another meeting of all parties is planned for Friday, she said.

"I understand there was enough positive dialogue and possibilities to continue the conversation," said County Executive Ken Ulman late Friday afternoon. "Anytime when folks are talking, it's positive."

At issue is whether the tower under construction by WCI Communities near Columbia's lakefront will be allowed to proceed. But the clock is ticking because it is possible that the project would become legally vested, or protected from any new legislation, if construction work progresses far enough by the time a law could take effect in December.

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, who did not attend the meeting, said Friday that she had reservations about delaying a decision.

"I would be opposed to tabling it without some reassurance that there was a serious effort on the part of the parties to reach a compromise," she said. Watson said she planned to talk with people over the weekend to determine how close a compromise might be.

Among the key players not at the table Friday were four plaintiffs who had filed a court action trying to stop the project. But their attorney was able to attend the latter part of the meeting.

In a letter sent to Ulman, E. Alexander Adams, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he could not be at the meeting because of a court commitment and that he had recommended his clients not attend without counsel.

"My clients, as always, have been receptive to a resolution that addresses this problem of the illegal land use classification, while being cognizant of the overall community interest in the long overdue re-zoning of Town Center," Adams wrote in his letter. "There are important issues in this case and important processes critical to the future of New Town realizing its rightful integral place in this County's social, cultural, community and economic mosaic."

Watson said that if the bills came to a vote, she would vote against the one that would allow the tower to be blocked by a pending court action.

"It provides a retroactive change of the rules and could potentially hold up good projects in the county by way of a frivolous appeal," she said. "I think it's overkill and bad for the business climate in the county."

She said late Friday that she had not decided how she would vote on Sigaty's other bill, which would set a 150-foot height limit on buildings in Columbia until a master development plan is adopted.

The county Planning Board has recommended against passage of either bill.

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; others oppose the Sigaty legislation, contending that height restrictions are not effective in managing growth.

Some council members raised concerns at last week's work session about whether they had enough information about the history of the project to make a sound decision.

Also, several said they worried about the message that the pending legislation sends to the business community about the potential for inconsistency in the rules if policies affecting projects get changed midstream.

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