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Court order halts duplex project

June 12, 2004|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

A Boonsboro woman obtained a temporary court order Friday preventing Habitat for Humanity of Washington County from building a duplex in her neighborhood.

With the help of an attorney, Karen Shifler of 128 Lakin Ave. obtained a temporary restraining order from Washington County Circuit Judge Donald Beachley.

Shifler said she objects to the duplex mainly because it fronts onto a narrow alley off St. Paul Street, creating a safety hazard for emergency vehicles and a tight crunch for other traffic.

She said she circulated a petition and stopped at 22 signatures.

Attorney Roger Schlossberg, who is representing Habitat for Humanity at no charge, said he will fight the order in court.

Schlossberg said the concern about road frontage is a red herring. He accused opponents of looking down on families who need affordable homes.

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"The forces of moral suasion have to be applied ..." he said. "This is about how we treat our neighbors."

After residents complained about the duplex project, town officials scheduled a public hearing for Monday to consider an ordinance prohibiting new homes from fronting alleys.

Shifler said that seems to duplicate a current subdivision ordinance that states, "All lots shall have direct access to an existing or proposed public street." However, the emergency ordinance adds that an alley is not a public street.

"It's mostly because of safety," Mayor Charles F. "Skip" Kauffman Jr. said Friday of the proposed ordinance, noting that Hagerstown and Washington County require frontage onto public roads.

A big question is whether the ordinance could be applied to the Habitat for Humanity duplex, which the town approved on July 10, 2003, after rejecting two earlier proposals.

Absolutely not, Schlossberg said; the U.S. Constitution forbids ex post facto, or retroactive, laws.

"It's an outrage to even try this," Schlossberg said. "It's an embarrassment."

Kauffman said that if the ordinance passes, the council will decide whether to apply it to a project. He added that the Habitat project is the only current one he knows of that could be affected.

"There won't be anything retroactively (applied)," Kauffman said.

He referred further questions to William Wantz, the town's attorney. Wantz said it would be "inappropriate" for him to comment.

Sherry Brown Cooper, Habitat for Humanity of Washington County's executive director, said volunteers hoped to quickly start construction before the town could pass the new frontage ordinance.

But Friday's temporary restraining order - and rain - halted that plan.

If the emergency ordinance passes Monday, it would take effect June 24 - two days before Habitat for Humanity originally planned to start building the duplex.

Habitat for Humanity is a grass-roots organization that builds affordable homes for people worldwide.

The Washington County chapter has built 15 houses in Hagerstown and one in Halfway. Two houses on Liberty Street in Hagerstown are in the works.

Cooper said the neighbors probably oppose Habitat for Humanity's clients, not the duplex.

"They have ignorance about us and our hard-working families," she said.

Shifler, who has worked on home-building projects through her church, disagreed.

"I have no idea who would be living at the homes," she said. "That has not crossed my mind."

Staff writer Scott Butki contributed to this story.

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