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Historic District Faces Development Pressure

The Dripby Ed Gunts10:41 amJan 13, 20200

Residents take city to court over Woodberry townhouse approval

Residents allege plan requires City Council review; No comment from developer Larry Jennings on Circuit Court appeal

Above: Part of the site of Larry Jennings’ proposed townhouses. In the background is the historic Woodberry United Methodist Church. (Mark Reutter)

Contesting the Baltimore Planning Commission’s vote to approve designs for a proposed townhouse development in Woodberry, residents of the Clipper Mill community have filed an appeal in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.

Attorney John Murphy filed the appeal on behalf of two homeowners’ groups that oppose the 30-unit development planned by developer Larry Jennings and the organization he represents, Valstone Partners.

The appeal asks the court to determine whether the Planning Commission acted properly when members voted unanimously last November to approve the design for the townhouses, an action needed by the developer to obtain a building permit.

The request for “judicial review” doesn’t automatically block construction work on the project, planned for a parking lot at 2001 Druid Park Drive that’s known as the Poole & Hunt lot.

But it means that if Valstone begins construction on the townhouses and the court rules against the Planning Commission, the developer may be forced to remove what he has built.

Murphy said he could ask the court for an injunction to block construction but has not done so. At this point, he said. “The developer is proceeding at his own risk.”

As of this week, construction has not begun at the site.

Bad Blood

Jennings declined last week to comment on the appeal. Chris Ryer, director of the planning commission, did not respond to a request for comment.

The parties seeking judicial review are The Council of Unit Owners of the Millrace Condominium and The Homes at Clipper Mill Homeowners Association Inc., along with Clipper Mill residents Jessica Meyer and Jeffrey Pietrzak.

Murphy represented the residents during a three-hour hearing during which they argued that construction of the townhouses would reduce the amount of parking in their community and violate the Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning legislation that governs what can be built on the property.

They also complained that Jennings has lied to the community about his development plans, has refused to listen to their concerns, and has been spiteful to residents who oppose what he is doing.

The planning commissioners said they understood that there is “bad blood” between the developer and the residents and said they wished the two parties would be more civil to each other. But at the end of the hearing, the panel approved the design as presented.

Minor Changes? Or Major?

Murphy said the residents are appealing the commission’s action on two grounds.

First, he said, the residents believe the townhouse project represents a major change to the community and requires a major amendment to the PUD legislation that controls development at Clipper Mill.

Passage of a major amendment requires a series of public hearings and approval by the mayor and City Council. Murphy said the residents believe city planners erred in treating the development as a project that requires only a minor amendment to the PUD, needing approval from the Planning Commission but not the full City Council.

“If you make major changes to the existing PUD, you have to do it by [City Council] ordinance versus Planning Commission approval,” he said.

Second, Murphy said, the opponents believe the PUD calls for the land to be used to provide parking for tenants of the Poole & Hunt building at Clipper Mill. He said there is already a shortage of parking at Clipper Mill and the loss of 46 spaces to make way for the townhouses will make it even harder for residents and visitors to park there.

“This lot is the parking lot for the Poole & Hunt building,” he said. “By putting town houses on that lot, they are taking away the parking spaces, and at Clipper Mill there aren’t other parking spaces.”

Resemblance to Overlook

After an appeal is filed, the court gets a transcript of the hearing, the affected parties provide more information about the case, and the court sets a date for a hearing before a judge.

Depending on the court’s schedule, it could take six to eight months for the case to be heard, and additional time for a ruling from a Circuit Court judge.

Murphy said the case is comparable in some ways to the recent case involving the Overlook at Roland Park development. There a Circuit Court judge ruled that the City Council erred in approving a $40 million, 148-unit development near the corner of Falls Road and Northern Parkway.

That case was heard in January 2018, but the judge did not issue a ruling until last month, nearly two years later.

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