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Town won't halt duplex

June 24, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ and RYAN C. TUCK

andrews@herald-mail.com
ryant@herald-mail.com

BOONSBORO- Boonsboro Mayor Charles F. "Skip" Kauffman Jr. said Wednesday that a new town ordinance won't apply to "any house under construction," including a Habitat for Humanity duplex being built off St. Paul Street.

His statement caps more than a week of speculation that the town might use a new zoning ordinance to shut down the project.

The Boonsboro Town Council passed an emergency ordinance June 14 that prohibits new houses from fronting alleys, as the duplex would.

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Immediately, Habitat for Humanity of Washington County volunteers launched a construction blitz, hoping to save the project by finishing enough work before the ordinance took effect.

Although some people connected to the project have said the ordinance takes effect today - the 10th day after the ordinance was passed - Kauffman said Wednesday that it takes effect Friday.

Maryland's law says, and its top court has ruled, that projects acquire "vested rights," or legal standing, after substantial construction has been done.

Kauffman said Wednesday that Habitat's work so far fits that description. "I think everything's pretty obvious now," he said.

Meanwhile, opponent Karen Shifler of Lakin Avenue, who lives nearby, might continue fighting the project on the grounds that it's unsafe.

On June 11, a Washington County Circuit judge granted Shifler a temporary restraining order, halting construction. Three days later, another Circuit Court judge vacated the order.

Shifler's attorney, Kirk Downey, said Wednesday that Shifler plans to file a separate complaint in court to stop the construction.

Shifler did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

Sherry Brown Cooper, Habitat's executive director in Washington County, said she was delighted with Kauffman's announcement and was sure that volunteers would be thrilled.

Volunteers returned Wednesday at 4 p.m. to finish the center pieces of the foundation and the concrete for the future porches and to apply coating to the foundation. Cooper anticipated that work being done by today, completing the foundation.

Tuesday's volunteers finished the left and front sides of the foundation and the wall separating the duplex's halves.

As Habitat requires, the two families who will live at the duplex have been helping.

Kauffman said the ordinance was meant to close a loophole, not as an anti-Habitat measure. He said the town supports Habitat's work to build affordable homes for low-income families.

"This was about safety and the convenience of the neighbors. ... This was never about Habitat. ... We're taking a lot of hits unnecessarily," he said.

"There's enough road frontage and space in Boonsboro to have avoided (building there)," Councilman Richard Hawkins said.

Kauffman said the town offered to trade land "of equal or greater value" for the parcel off St. Paul Street, but Habitat declined.

Cooper confirmed the offer, but said it was made around June 10. She said she told Kauffman, "It's a little late."

The Boonsboro Planning Commission granted Habitat a variance to front onto an alley in July 2003, on Habitat's third try to build there.

Assistant Attorney General Shelley Wasserman of the Maryland Department of Planning has said that "vested rights" traditionally come with substantial construction, not just government approval.

Without commenting on Boonsboro, she cited a 1993 ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.

The decision allowed Prince George's County, Md., to rezone land and stop construction of an apartment building. The developer had poured a single four-square-foot footer before the zoning change - insignificant on a 10-acre parcel, the court ruled.

The Prince George's decision cites a 1963 Court of Appeals ruling as one standard for determining whether construction has begun.

The 1963 ruling says that entails both "work or labor on the ground which everyone can readily see and recognize" and "the work done must have been begun with the intention ... to continue the work until the completion of the building."

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