Keep Our Valley Rural: Reduce the 56
Keep Our Valley Rural: Reduce the 56

County Appeals Board OKs Associated's New Homes

Article originally appearing in the September 2016 issue of The Country Crier and reprinted here with their permission.

 

by Michael Ruby

 

Officials for Baltimore's largest Jewish charitable organization may be winning the battles but they are losing the war to win over the hearts and minds of neighbors opposed to an Owings Mills housing project sponsored by the group.

 

On August 31, the Baltimore County Board of Appeals (CBA) publicly expressed its intention to affirm the approval of the development plan submitted by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore calling for 56 houses on the vacant portion of the 152-acre site at Garrison Forest and Gwynnbrook avenues that already is home to the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center and Weinberg Village.

 

Neighbors opposing the housing plan are arguing the proposed new homes violate a 15-year-old restrictive covenant which they say may be unconstitutional since it could be interpreted as illegal contract zoning. 

 

During the recent public deliberation, the three members of the appeals panel unanimously agreed they could not “crack the egg” and rule on the debatable issue of whether the restrictive covenant between the property owner and Baltimore County limited the number of houses allowed on the unused portion of the parcel. That’s because the agreement is a contract between two private parties and was never made a part of any local government ruling so is not subject to scrutiny by the appeals board, according to the CBA members.

 

“The [appeals] board can never interpret a restrictive covenant unless it is part of an administrative order,” said CBA Chair Maureen E. Murphy. 

 

Affirmed earlier ruling

 

Having agreed that the main point of contention was best left to a judge to adjudicate, the board of appeals members then affirmed an earlier ruling by the Baltimore County administrative law judge saying the proposal met all local and state regulations so can proceed towards obtaining the necessary grading and construction permits.

 

The Greater Greenspring Association, the Valleys Planning Council and a few individual adjacent property owners appealed the ALJ’s ruling which brought the matter before the Baltimore County Board of Appeals, the next step in the administrative review process.

 

The Board of Appeals now must issue a written order based upon its August 31 public deliberation. Both parties have 30 days from the date of the written ruling to seek a judicial review from the circuit court. 

Attorney Christopher Mudd, of the Venable law firm which represents The Associated, did not respond to any inquiries or a request for comment following the appeals board’s public deliberation. The Associated’s Director of Public Relations Rochelle Eisenburg said they wanted to review the written order before making any decision or comment.

 

Attorney J. Carroll Holzer, who represents the neighbors and opposition groups, also said he would discuss options with his clients after getting the written order. However, Holzer admitted that the legal brief he submitted to the appeals board containing the groups’ arguments was written “with an eye toward further litigation,” he said.

 

“The [appeals] board doesn’t usually confront constitutional issues,” continued Holzer. “We feel the county illegally contracted with the developer for the change in zoning which is unconstitutional.”

 

Low-density uses

 

The restrictive covenant was entered into in 1992 during the comprehensive zoning maps process to settle what could go on the parcel in exchange for the zoning which allowed the elderly housing village and up to 90,000 square feet of office space in buildings no more than three stories high.

 

The agreement, between The Associated and Baltimore County, stipulated that if offices were not built on the property, any future development would be limited to low-density (one house per acre) residential uses only, similar to that which borders most of the site. The Velvet Hills and Worthington Park communities abut the property.

 

But the pact has not been made a part of any administrative order for development of either the community center or the Weinberg Village apartments. So, legally, the agreement is not something the CBA can consider and, instead, the issue of constitutionality must be decided by a circuit court judge.

“It is this board’s practice to stay away from restrictive covenants unless they are part of an order,” said CBA member Andrew M. Belt during the August 31 public deliberation. “We can’t crack the egg and get a look at what is inside to determine if this is contract zoning.”

 

CBA Chair Murphy added the board is bound by legal precedent which precludes reviewing any agreement not part of an administrative order and that the constitutional issue “should be filed with the circuit court.”

 

“I understand the opponents have to exhaust their administrative remedies first,” said Murphy. “But we are still bound by [previous case law].”

 

O-shaped roadway

 

According to drawings submitted to county officials, The Associated’s plan calls for 56 single-family detached houses on the vacant portion of the 152-acre site north of the Weinberg Village apartments, just west of the existing Associated Way road. The housing community would be built around an O-shaped roadway off Associated Way, be served by bio-retention stormwater management facilities and provide both passive and active open space.

 

The houses would be approximately 32 feet wide by 50 feet deep with a 20-foot-wide attached garage.

Existing streams, wetlands and forest conservation areas will not be disturbed.

 

Most of the traffic to and from the new homes is expected to enter the property using the existing Associated Way where it meets Garrison Forest Road directly opposite Walnut Avenue. 

 

Round-about gone

 

Decades ago, the community went along with the special exception that permitted the Jewish Community Center on the property. Then neighbors agreed in 1992 to the zoning change, accompanied by the restrictive covenant, that allowed the 400-unit Weinberg Village along with some future office space. Unexpectedly, The Associated upped it to 500 units for Weinberg Village.

 

Now they don't need the office space and are double dipping, argue opponents, by using density The Associated officials say is available from forest conservation and open space but neighbors contend was used up for the Weinberg Village.

 

Since first unveiled, The Associated has made a few -- what opponents call minor -- changes to the plan. Gone is the proposed round-about at the intersection of Associated Way and Garrison Forest Avenue, a feature neighbors did not want and didn't think would work.

 

Also, additional landscaping has been added to shield and buffer existing Worthington Park homes from the new houses, according to the drawings.

 

Packed like sardines

 

But still in place are the 56 new houses packed like sardines at the northern end of the larger site on small lots which are out of character with the surrounding neighborhoods that boast houses on half-acre and one-acre lots. And that's the trouble, contend opponents to the plan.

 

They say the density is too much, the resulting increase in traffic is unconscionable and the effect on their quality of life is unacceptable.

 

Representatives for The Associated earlier have said the smaller lot home sites are desirable in today's market because people with busy lives don't want a big yard to maintain. Prices for the units are expected to start at about $600,000-to-$700,000.

 

Associated officials also said they expect to sell the approved home sites to an as-yet undetermined home builder. But by designing the project and getting approval, they control the number and quality of homes going on the property, next door to their Weinberg Village.

Associated Way Homes  OK’d, Appeals Are Filed

Article originally appearing in the May 2016 issue of The Country Crier and reprinted here with their permission.

 

by Michael Ruby

 

In the latest David versus Goliath battle in the Owings Mills area, Goliath won which, at least this time, came as no surprise to David. But that doesn’t mean David is giving up.

Nope, Greater Greenspring Association members and neighboring homeowners are appealing the approval of new houses proposed on a vacant portion of the 152-acre parcel north of the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center at Garrison Forest Road and Gwynnbrook Avenue. The new houses are being sponsored by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, one of the most powerful and respected philanthropic organizations in Baltimore.

 

Baltimore County’s top zoning official recently approved a plan calling for 56 new single-family detached houses along Associated Way, the roadway that travels through the site, past the Jewish Community Center and the Weinberg Village while connecting Gwynnbrook Avenue with Garrison Forest Road, opposite Walnut Road.

 

The neighbors opposing the new housing community contend The Associated earlier utilized almost all of the density on the overall tract when building the community center and the village. Only 38 houses are now permitted under the property’s zoning, they contend, pointing to a 1992 agreement which spelled out future development of the site.

But Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) John E. Beverungen said the nearly 25-year-old agreement between Baltimore County administrators and The Associated is a legal document that must be enforced in court, not through the development review process.

“I do not believe that [this office] has ‘jurisdiction’ to consider and construe this agreement,” said Beverungen in his 20-page order dated March 29. “The [Maryland] Court of Special Appeals held that an administrative agency does not have authority to interpret and enforce a ‘restrictive covenant agreement’ unless such an agreement is incorporated into an opinion and order issued by that agency. The AJC agreement was not incorporated into any prior administrative orders. Accordingly, the agreement can only be interpreted by a circuit court.”

 

Should be overturned

 

Besides, continued Beverungen, testimony presented by witnesses for The Associated convinced him that “sufficient density for the 56 single-family dwellings would exist” under the property’s zoning so the development plan can be approved.

 

“I am convinced by the testimony…that the project is supported by sufficient density,” he said in his ruling.

 

Only after getting the hearing officer's approval can the developer submit detailed engineering drawings en route to obtaining the necessary grading and construction permits.

 

On April 27, officials for the Greater Greenspring Association appealed the ruling to the Baltimore County Board of Appeals, the next step in the administrative development review process. Also, officials for the Valleys Planning Council (VPC) filed a separate appeal of the ruling on April 28.

 

No date has been set for a public hearing before the three-member appeals board.

Members of Greater Greenspring or officials for the Valleys Planning Council were not available for comment.

 

However, in filing the appeals, attorney J. Carroll Holzer, who represents Greater Greenspring, five adjacent homeowners and VPC, included a list of nine reasons why Beverungen erred in his ruling and that the decision should be overturned by the Board of Appeals.

 

Some of the reasons why Holzer said the ALJ’s ruling was wrong included:

 

• Baltimore County entered into illegal contract zoning in 1992;

• Beverungen can and should have considered the 1992 agreement when deciding what density is available;

• Baltimore County failed to abide by the 1992 agreement to notify the community and acknowledge community concerns;

• The ALJ failed to require an analysis of the multiple amendments to the plan since 1992 by county planners and zoning staffers  to determine what density is available.

 

Because of the multiple amendments made to the original plan that accommodate the community center and the village, density was used and parcels overlapped which Holzer alleged “resulted in double dipping,” something that could be sorted out by an analysis by county personnel. However, Beverungen failed to require a review, contended Holzer, and settled for the testimony provided the sponsor of the plan.

 

“The Department of Planning didn’t even bother to decide if any density was available,” said Holzer.

 

If such a review is conducted, Holzer contended that only 38 houses could be built on the remaining portion of the Owings Mills site.

 

Not much of a win

 

Going from 56 to 38 houses may not seem like much of a win but it may be the best the poorly-funded, rag-tag bunch of disorganized homeowners can expect against the venerable and powerful Associated which manages more than $300 million in assets.

At an October 6, 2015, county-mandated community input meeting on the project, residents argued The Associated was proposing too many houses on lots that are too little and all crowded into too compact an area of the property. Fewer homes on bigger lots would be more in keeping with the surrounding neighborhoods which feature houses on half-acre to one-acre lots.

 

Also, those in attendance said they feared increased traffic from the new homes would exacerbate already congested conditions on Garrison Forest Road and the dangerous Gywnnbrook Road.

 

One of the solutions to any real or perceived traffic problems was a proposed roundabout at the intersection of Associated Way and Garrison Forest Road, opposite Walnut Road. During the community input meeting, some residents said they were against it, some said a two-lane round about is a must for school busses to maneuver and others said they didn't care.

 

In his recent order, ALJ Beverungen required the developer to install “at its own cost” a roundabout constructed using stamped concrete, not pavers. This requirement was made based upon the strong recommendation by the county’s traffic engineering division which said it would “improve traffic in the area.”

 

Market demand

 

Fewer homes on bigger lots may be what the neighbors want but it’s not what the market is demanding, said representatives for The Associated.

 

Buyers today don’t want big yards that they have to maintain, according to The Associated officials, who added these new houses are expected to sell for more than the opponents’ homes are reselling for, starting at about $600,000-to-$700,000.

 

Associated officials said they expect to sell the approved home sites to an as-yet undetermined home builder. But by designing the project and getting approval, they can control the number and quality of homes going on the property, next door to the Weinberg Village.

 

The show of solidarity and resolve by the community and now the two appeals could force Associated officials into negotiations with the community groups in an effort to end the nasty confrontation that could damage the organization's public image. So far, The Associated officials have not reached out to the community in any meaningful way, say opponents.

 

At the earlier community impact meeting, VPC officials pointed out that decades ago, the community went along with the special exception that permitted the Jewish Community Center on the property. Then neighbors entered into an agreement in 1992 that provided the zoning for the 400-unit Weinberg Village along with some future office space. Unexpectedly, The Associated upped it to 500 units for Weinberg Village.

 

Now The Associated doesn't need the office space and are using density The Associated officials say is available from forest conservation and open space but neighbors contend was used up for the Weinberg Village.

 

Besides, opponents say they are not trying to stop all the houses, just trying to preserve the character of the community which they say would be damaged if The Associated is allowed to maximize every inch of the property.

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