Two weeks after Baltimore’s Planning Commission approved the design for the historic Tractor Building in Woodberry to be converted into apartments, neighboring property owners have blocked construction at least temporarily by challenging the decision in court.
Attorney John Murphy on Wednesday filed an appeal of the Planning Commission’s decision with the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, an action that prevents developer Larry Jennings and Valstone Partners from proceeding with construction until the court holds a hearing on the 98-unit project.
The filing came one week after Circuit Court Judge Videtta Brown invalidated a decision by the planning commission to approve another Valstone project, a 30-townhouse development planned for 2001 Druid Park Drive, following an appeal by Clipper Mill property owners.
It marks at least the third time in seven months that a pro-developer decision by city officials has been contested by neighboring property owners who say they didn’t get a fair hearing. In December, Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill vacated City Council legislation allowing Blue Ocean Realty to build a $40 million apartment complex in North Roland Park after neighbors filed an appeal.
“It’s out of their hands now,” Murphy said, referring to the planning commission and its action on the Tractor Building. “It’s in the hands of the Circuit Court.”
In the latest case, Murphy filed an administrative appeal on behalf of the Council of Unit Owners of the Millrace Condominium, The Homes at Clipper Mill Homeowners Association, and residents Jessica Meyer, Jeffrey Pietrzak, Mark Salditch and Christopher Whipps. The appeal asks for “judicial review” of the planning commission’s action at its virtual public meeting on June 18.
The residents argued before the Planning Commission that Valstone’s proposal for the Tractor Building at 2039 Clipper Park Road shouldn’t be approved because it didn’t meet the terms of the Planning Unit Development (PUD) zoning legislation that controls development within the Clipper Mill community.
They said the design was never reviewed by the Maryland Historical Trust or the National Park Service, as required by the PUD legislation, and that the developer’s plan to build a garage on the so-called “Stables lot” west of the Tractor Building is inconsistent with city zoning documents, which never mentioned a garage.
But the Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve the development plan after Eric Tiso, Land Use and Urban Design division chief, told the panel that the planning staff doesn’t interpret the PUD documents the same way the residents do.
Murphy said he will ask the court to determine whether the planning commission followed the law when it approved the Tractor Building design. He said he anticipates that the court will hold a hearing on the appeal in “a couple of months,” and that it likely will be held virtually.
In the townhouse case, Judge Brown said the planning commission acted improperly because it didn’t complete a “findings of fact” and “conclusions of law” document showing that its members based their decision on legal grounds and public testimony.
Murphy declined to say whether the existence of appropriate follow-up documentation of the commission’s June 18 meeting may be raised as an issue in the Tractor Building case.
The planning commission has scheduled time to receive advice from the city law department about its actions pertaining to the two Valstone projects at the end of its virtual public meeting on July 9.
According to an agenda prepared for the July 9 meeting, the commission will get information about the impact of Brown’s ruling “on the Commission’s recent decision with regard to the Tractor Building, and the general process for making findings of fact and conclusions of law. The Commission may vote to close the session to receive such advice under the Open Meetings Act.”
If the panel wants to take any formal action following its closed-session briefing from the law department, that would have to come at a separate meeting, according to city law.
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