Condominium plan splits Balto. Co. community

Crime, Law and JusticeLaws and LegislationJustice SystemHomesOwings Mills (Baltimore, Maryland)Chesapeake BayBaltimore County

No dirt has been turned, but the Galloway Creek waterfront condominium has already marked the Bowleys Quarters peninsula, setting neighbor against neighbor, suggesting a future for the southeastern Baltimore County community that some find promising, others frightening.

Former compatriots fight in Circuit Court, while the proposal is being argued anew before a county hearing officer — more than five years after the local man behind the project first presented plans to his neighbors. He offers the blueprint as a way to make his marina greener, but the county People's Counsel, representing the public in zoning cases, argues that the project runs afoul of the law and county agencies have mishandled it.

Opponents have presented a petition with about 300 signatures, but the project also has its advocates in the community of more than 3,500 people in Middle River.

Joseph W. Hession, an opponent who lives across Galloway Creek from the proposed site, said there's nothing wrong with condominiums, but not in Bowleys Quarters, not after residents made clear in their community plan that they prefer a neighborhood of single-family homes. Hession told a hearing last week that the proposed 331-foot-long, four-story building for 36 two-bedroom condominium units doesn't fit.

"There are beautiful condominiums in White Marsh, but this is ridiculous," Hession said. "We're calling this a Wal-Mart with windows and balconies."

Ronald Walper, who also lives across the creek from the project site, told the hearing he fears that if this marina converts to a condominium, others nearby will follow. That could mean hundreds of new condominiums on the peninsula, where many say they cherish a quieter way of life in an area one resident called "land's end."

Walper said the Galloway Creek proposal is "a real test case…it sets a precedent."

Many neighbors have also lined up to support the developer, longtime resident Milton A. Rehbein III, who is pursuing this project on Burke Road as a planned unit development, or PUD. The alternative development approach would allow more units than conventional zoning, in exchange for a benefit to the community. In this case, Rehbein has promised a donation to the Bowleys Quarters Volunteer Fire Department for a new ladder truck.

His design calls for removing two of three piers, cutting boat slips from 188 to 36 and expanding areas for underwater grass to grow, removing some paving, putting the condominium on four acres and setting aside about 10 undeveloped acres for conservation. His lawyer, John Gontrum, said the plan expands the "diversity of housing, and improves the waterfront."

The plan was submitted to the county along with more than 40 supportive letters. John and Dee Bongiorno, who live down Burke Road from the site, wrote to the Bowleys Quarters Improvement Association in 2006 that they believe the proposal "will be a major improvement to the property."

Mark Genovese wrote to Rehbein that he thought the condominium would make a fine choice for local people who have retired and sold their homes. "After talking to some of the older folks, it seems to me that this is a good option for them to be able to stay in the community" Genovese wrote.

Since the plan was submitted late in 2007, it's been through the regulatory mill and back.

It's been approved by the Planning Board and the zoning commissioner, rejected and later revived by the Board of Appeals. It was brought to a Circuit Court judge, who sent it back for a new hearing that runs much like a court proceeding. The hearing before one of three administrative law judges — also known as hearing officers — began in March, continued this month and after seven full days has recessed until next month.

A portion of the case involving standards set by the county's Chesapeake Bay Critical Area code has been broken off and is now before the Board of Appeals.

"It is a very, very confusing case," said J. Carroll Holzer, a veteran land use lawyer and former county attorney who is representing the opponents. Aside from the procedural twists and turns, there's a complex tangle involving zoning and development law, master plan compliance, neighborhood compatibility and the Critical Area code.

Holzer, who years ago worked with a community group that organized in opposition to PUD rules, said Galloway Creek sums up much of what's wrong with the law, although significant changes have been made in just the past few weeks.

"This is certainly a case of the worst that can come out of the PUD process," Holzer said. "No wonder citizens are skeptical, not only of this PUD, but of all the PUDs."

Like many PUDs proposed in the last several years, this one involves a relatively small piece of land without the mixed uses that characterized the expansive projects that were among the first built under these rules in Baltimore County, including Mays Chapel and Owings Mills Town Center. Once the minimum land required dropped from 250 acres to 5 to no minimum, Holzer argues, developers were abusing the law to skirt zoning.

Peter Max Zimmerman, the people's counsel, wrote a 22-page memorandum arguing that the plan does not conform to the master plan and exceeds density limits set by the Critical Areas code. He argues that the project is "disqualified" for a conflict with a 2007 county law setting the rules for building such projects outside the Urban Rural Demarcation Line. The URDL divides more and less densely developed areas.

Zimmerman faults the planning board for approving the project despite that URDL conflict, and says the former Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management seems to be "on the side of the development interests and not on the side of the law."

While the land-use case grinds on, six former members of the Bowleys Quarters Improvement Association are suing 14 others in Circuit Court for $2.25 million in damages arising in part from disagreements about the condominium project. The plaintiffs claim the organization's leaders misrepresented the proposal to members, violated bylaws, misappropriated funds and improperly ejected some members.

Members of the improvement association, led by supporters of the condominium project, broke away to form their own group, the Bowleys Quarters Community Association, which is led by opponents.

"Some people that have been friends of yours for years no longer talk to you," Norma Bankard, an opponent of the project who is not a party to the lawsuit, told the hearing. "It's not the way it should be."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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