You might say we're in the last leg of a race to the finish between ordinary homeowners, backed up by the slow but steady Judiciary, and well-financed developers backed up by the O'Malley Administration. Since we, the tortoises in this scenario, have the law and the court on our side, you might think we have a chance to win in the end. But the hares don't stop at legal roadblocks; instead, they hop right over them.
This has been going on for three years, since the City first issued a construction permit that violated the Zoning Code (hop). When we appealed, the Zoning Board dutifully affirmed the permit (hop).
That permit wasn't used because the Howard County developer soon emerged with a new proposal, a massive apartment house that he invited us to reject with no hard feelings. We did reject it, as too large and too disruptive for our quiet two- and three-story block. We also informed the Howard County developer that we were actively seeking the court's opinion on the construction permit, which had not been withdrawn, and that we expected the ruling to affect any future development and use of the site.
The site in question is surplus land from the 1920s construction of our 24 row homes along Howard and 29th Streets. Soon after the houses were completed, the leftover parcels behind them were filled with brick garages.
Now cleared, the site contains less than two-thirds of an acre, enough land to accommodate one single-family house with a two-car garage and a landscaped lawn in parts of Guilford or Roland Park or Mount Washington. Here in Remington, Struever Bros. and the Howard County developer are racing to build a seven-story, 104-bedroom apartment building that will dwarf our modest houses, more than double the population of our block, and turn parking into a permanent nightmare.
And they are doing it on an illegally issued permit (hop). That's right, another one.
We prevailed in court against that first permit. On October 31, 2001 the judge ruled that the City had, indeed, violated the Zoning Code. But instead of appealing, the O'Malley Administration and its agencies conveniently adopted the self-serving position that the judge was "wrong" (hop).
Meanwhile, the Howard County developer wasn't taking our "no" for an answer on his block-busting apartment house. And so the City went ahead and issued him a construction permit that violated the very same Zoning Code requirements all over again (hop). The Zoning Board went ahead and affirmed the permit, even though they knew the court had overruled them the first time (hop). So we are forced to go to the court again, on the exact two-year anniversary of our 2001 victory.
While we crawl toward that date, the hares keep hopping along. Soon crews will start drilling into bedrock under the authority of the illegally issued permit. Because the City Law Department refuses to acknowledge that there is a mandatory stay (hop), Struever Bros. and the Howard County developer are being allowed to build as much as they can before the permit is ruled invalid.
Is this absurd? No question. Is it bad public policy? Absolutely. But this is how our City behaves these days when citizens don't agree with developers.
Of course, the public servants responsible for implementing this bad public policy don't really work for you and me. They work for the O'Malley Administration. And under the O'Malley Administration, neither the citizenry, nor the law, nor even the Judiciary is allowed to get in the way of Big Development
. Many Baltimore City neighborhoods have discovered this. Just look at the number of people who have already been told to leave their homes or small businesses to make way for the O'Malley Administration's development schemes. Others are expected to give up their neighborhoods' best or most familiar characteristics to make developers happy.
The City and its agencies are showing absolutely no respect for the small, tax-paying, law-abiding homeowner or businessperson in the ordinary neighborhood. It is hypocritical for the Administration to boast "Neighborhoods First" and encourage us to commit and invest, while planning to squeeze us out. It is hypocritical to declare "Neighborhoods First" while routinely refusing to observe laws such as the Zoning Code that were enacted to preserve our neighborhoods and to make us feel comfortable in our homes and businesses.
This Administration and its agencies are terribly fond of saying that the Zoning Code is out of date. That's because the Zoning Code doesn't serve the current Big Development agenda. It isn't supposed to.
The purpose of the Zoning Code is not to make developers happy. The official purpose of the Zoning Code is to lessen congestion in the streets; to secure safety from fire and other dangers; to promote health and the general welfare; to provide adequate light and air; to prevent the overcrowding of land; to avoid undue concentration of population; to facilitate adequate provision of transportation, water, sewerage, schools, parks, and other public requirements; to conserve the value of buildings and other structures; and to encourage the most appropriate uses of land throughout the City.
These purposes are valid and essential. They are precisely why my row house neighborhood said "no" to a massive apartment house project.
Saying "no" with the law on our side has allowed ordinary investment to resume on this block. Six houses have been sold, at prices ranging from $45,000 to $130,000 according to condition. The City has collected the transfer tax. Purchasers, including two new resident homeowners, have put money into improvements. Previously empty units have become occupied. This is ordinary progress, the slow but steady kind, for which this Administration and its agencies appear to have no patience.
If the tortoises lose this time, if Struever Bros. and the Howard County developer go ahead and build this block-busting project in spite of the neighborhood, in spite of the law and in spite of the Judiciary, let it stand as a monument to the hypocrisy, atrocious behavior, and miserable public policy of the O'Malley Administration
Joan Floyd is a homeowner on Howard Street in the Remington community in Baltimore City.
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This story was published on September 5, 2003.
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