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Historic District Faces Development Pressure

Business & Developmentby Ed Gunts10:05 amJun 26, 20200

Judge invalidates city approval of Woodberry townhouse project

Residents have been challenging Baltimore developer Larry Jennings’ efforts to build 30 townhouses in Clipper Mill

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

Developer Larry Jennings suffered a setback in his efforts to build 30 townhouses in Woodberry yesterday, when a city judge invalidated the Baltimore Planning Commission’s approval of the project.

Judge Videtta Brown rejected a November 2019 decision by the Planning Commission to approve a proposal by Jennings and his development group, Valstone Partners, to build townhouses on land that was set aside for parking in zoning legislation meant to control development in the Clipper Mill community.

Brown’s decision came at the end of a virtual hearing in which attorney John C. Murphy questioned the Planning Commission’s decision to approve the project even though the property, at 2001 Druid Park Drive, was reserved by law for parking and no other use.

“I’m absolutely delighted” with the ruling, Murphy said after the decision. “We’re going to keep fighting this all the way.”

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Clipper Mill resident Jessica Meyer, one of the residents who hired Murphy to challenge the Planning Commission’s decision. “I’m hopeful the law will be upheld.”

Commission’s Procedure Faulted

Brown’s ruling was a critique aimed more at the Planning Commission’s process than the developer’s project. She said the commission acted improperly because it did not complete a “findings of fact” and “conclusions of law” document showing that the panel rendered its decision based on legal grounds and public testimony.

She said the staff report to the commission regurgitated the history of development on the site but lacked analysis showing why the developer should be permitted to build houses on land reserved for parking and how the design met the Planned Unit Development (PUD) requirements.

Opponents of the townhouses in November told the commissioners that the project would eliminate already scarce parking and pointed to  PUD zoning legislation that identifies the Poole & Hunt property as a parking area.

But city planners said they interpreted the PUD legislation differently. They said they believed Valstone’s plan to build townhouses on the parking lot required only a minor amendment to the PUD and did not need City Council approval.

Under their interpretation, design approval only had to come from the Planning Commission, giving that panel the final say before building permits were issued.

Echoes of Overlook Case

The ruling was the second time in six months that a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge has reversed a pro-developer decision by city officials that had been challenged by neighboring property owners who said they didn’t get a fair hearing.

Last year, Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill issued a ruling that “vacated” City Council legislation allowing Blue Ocean Realty to build a 148-unit apartment complex in North Roland Park, saying then-Mayor Catherine Pugh and the council improperly approved the project in 2017.

The developer of the $40 million project, the Overlook at Roland Park, has appealed the decision to Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals.

An appeal also was filed by attorneys representing opponents of the six-story development, proposed for a 12-acre site near Northern Parkway and Falls Road.

Adam Levine, Practice Group Chief with the city Law Department and attorney representing the planning commission, said he would be happy to discuss the judge’s ruling but wanted to consult with his client first.

Valstone was represented by Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler attorney David Applefeld, who said he will respond to questions.

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