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'It's their way or the highway'

Developer blames Md. agency for jeopardizing chances to land new firm; officials rush to help

August 25, 2013|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU | arnoldp@herald-mail.com
  • Developer Asad Ghattas stands at the intersection of Club Road and Rt. 11 located at the entrance to Fountainhead Plaza. He has been asked to upgrade signals and crosswalks by the State Highway Administration before he can get an occupancy permit for his new building.
By Yvette May / Staff Photographer

nnsylvania Avenue intersection with Club Road. It leads into the Fountain Head housing development, across U.S. 11, opposite the plaza entrance.

Because of the new office building Ghattas was to erect, SHA wanted him to upgrade the intersection. Its current “walk-don’t walk” signs for pedestrians as well as other safety features were installed by Ghattas in 1984 when he was building Fountainhead Plaza.

This time, Gischlar said, SHA wants Ghattas to install more modern signs showing a countdown, indicating to walkers how much time remains for them to safely cross.

In addition, Gischlar said, the state wants the crosswalk signal to be audible so that blind pedestrians can more safely cross the road. Such signals emit a series of beeps that indicate when it is safe to cross and have “a computer voice” that would say something like, “Safe to cross Pennsylvania Avenue,” Gischlar said.

Ghattas said the talks with SHA included the agency’s comments about existing curb cuts, ramps, crosswalks and other safety aspects of the intersection.

To every request, Ghattas said, “I said, ‘Fine. Tell me what you want me to do.’” Calling it a “noble cause,” he said he especially liked the idea of providing audible signals to help those pedestrians with handicaps.

Ghattas said the talks with the state seemed to go nowhere for almost two years. First, he said, the state would talk about a few requirements for one area of the intersection, Ghattas’ consultant would provide the required documentation or study, and then the state would talk about different requirements for the same area.

Talks that have taken nearly two years should have been completed in three months or less because the improvements needed are “very trivial” compared to those for larger projects, Ghattas said. But, he said, in talking to SHA, he’s found, “It’s their way or the highway.”

At one point, Ghattas said he asked state Del. Andrew Serafini, R-Washington, to help. In an interview Aug. 14, Serafini said he talked to SHA at least a year ago, urging its officials to ensure safety with the project, but also to strive for “timeliness” in its discussions with Ghattas.

“This is another example of a good neighbor, a good businessman trying to do a project. He did all that environmentally responsible. He’s a good business person that tries to do things right,” Serafini said. He said he told SHA officials to do, within bounds, “whatever you can do to help him.”

After Serafini stepped in, Ghattas said things improved for awhile.

“He got them to blink their eyes a little bit, but then, their eyes went back shut again,” Ghattas said.


‘Walk to nowhere’

One improvement the state discussed involved what Ghattas said he eventually began to think of as the “walk to nowhere.” He said the state apparently didn’t realize at first it was talking about a crosswalk that would end where a dirt embankment begins — with no sidewalk.

SHA’s latest plans for the intersection do include a sidewalk there. According to an engineering drawing, a handicap ramp is to be built where the embankment is now and from it, the sidewalk is to extend about 65 feet back toward the office building, where another handicap ramp is to be built.

Amid such planning, Ghattas said, SHA keeps “going back and forth, back and forth, nothing accomplished,” he said. “Then, 30 days go by, then it’s another request or comment or nothing done. It’s been frustrating like you’d never believe.”

When Fountainhead One was completed about two months ago, Ghattas said he waited for the county to issue him a use-and-occupancy permit for the building, as has happened quickly with his other buildings throughout the area.

When the permit didn’t come, Ghattas said he began to think that SHA’s seeming inability to conclude the intersection talks was causing the county to hold back.

He said he asked a county employee about it and was told the county only could issue the permit without state approval if the “higher-ups” — which Ghattas said he thought meant County Administrator Gregory B. Murray or the county commissioners — approved it.

In April, at the SHA’s request, Ghattas gave the state a $55,000 bond, ensuring the intersection improvements would be done properly. If not, the state could revoke the bond, using the money to have the work done.

In May, when he received the state’s access permit, but still no county occupancy permit, Ghattas held off on starting the improvements. Although the permit authorized him to begin, Ghattas said the lack of the occupancy permit led him to conclude SHA still had objections, which its continuing questions and informational requests seemed to confirm.


Gain and risk

Reaction was swift after the newspaper contacted the county Thursday, Aug. 15, to find out why the permit hadn’t been issued.

Robert Slocum, the county’s deputy director of public works, contacted Ghattas the following day to tell him that SHA wouldn’t object if Ghattas requested a temporary use-and-occupancy permit because it had his bond.

The temporary permit wouldn’t be the full occupancy permit that Ghattas had been anticipating, allowing him to assure prospective tenants that the building and the intersection project, backed by the bond, were good to go. He knew he still would need individual use-and-occupancy permits for each office, as his tenant decided how he wanted it laid out.

Instead, the temporary permit would allow occupancy, but with conditions — in this case, that the intersection improvements be completed and approved.

The temporary document leaves the developer facing the risk of having unexpected trouble meeting the conditions, even while he might have gone ahead and made arrangements with tenants.

Given all the “back and forth, back and forth” talks he already has experienced with SHA and the fact of having given it the bond, Ghattas told the newspaper that, at first, he didn’t think the temporary permit was “worth anything” to him now.

It is intended as a way to “accommodate” developers while still getting them to commit to meeting the conditions within a specified number of days, Slocum and Angela Smith, the county’s deputy director of permitting, said in an interview Wednesday.

From the granting of a building permit through an occupancy permit, Smith and Slocum said, it’s important to involve agencies such as SHA in the approval process to ensure all public works and safety issues are addressed.

If a building has passed all county inspections and none of the outside agencies have any outstanding issues, Smith and Slocum said, the county automatically will issue a full use-and-occupancy permit to the building owner.

But if any of the agencies object, only a temporary occupancy permit may be issued, and then only if the owner or the developer requests it.


SHA often last

Ghattas isn’t the only local developer who has reported waiting for SHA to take action on proposed projects, according to Slocum.

Among developers, “there’s genuine frustration” with the state agency, Slocum said.

The situation has risen to the level of being identified as an “issue” in the Action Plan posted online in May by the county’s Division of Plan Review and Permitting.

On that document, one of the issues listed on the first page reads: “SHA approval is required prior to approval of a site plan, preliminary plat, preliminary plat/site plan, final plat, grading plan. SHA approval often holds up approval of a plan that has been approved by all other agencies.”

Asked to talk about that, Smith said that SHA’s involvement in the county’s approval process “has been an issue and a concern. Sometimes, their turn-around time isn’t as efficient as we would like it to be.”

But, Smith added, “Many times, there is an issue they (SHA) have to work out with the developer.”

Slocum said he doesn’t know how prevalent the problem is.

“I don’t think it’s reasonable for us to make that judgment” because county officials aren’t always involved in talks between the agency and developers, he said.

The “proposed solution” in the Action Plan for projects requiring a road-access permit from SHA is to allow “approval conditional on SHA approval prior to building permit application.”

However, the plan says, “All plans approved with a conditional approval are at risk for denial or significant modification requirements based on SHA comments and approvals. The applicant must assume this risk.”

Because of such concerns, Slocum said he thinks the discussion of the problem here has been “invigorated. Communication among the county, SHA and the development community is a focus of ours.”

As a result, “over the past year, we’ve seen some progress (at SHA) toward more expedience,” Slocum said. “I believe our local (SHA) office here is working more closely with us.

“I have a contact here, and we’re going to make some progress on this (Fountainhead One project) pretty quickly. I think there is, obviously, some need for improvement on this.”


Help and hope

Last Thursday, Gischlar emailed the newspaper to say that his agency has decided to work with Ghattas even more closely.

“SHA is going to appoint one of our people to help the gentleman through the process — of course, we can’t (do) it for him, but we will assist him. ... We are going to try to help him,” Gischlar wrote.

On Wednesday, Ghattas applied to the county for a temporary use-and-occupancy permit, also known as a “U&O.” He said he had misgivings about its worth, but was thinking it might be a sign of progress to officials of the high-tech company interested in moving to his building.

On Thursday, deputy permitting director Smith granted his request, issuing a 90-day permit requiring Ghattas to make the intersection improvements and have them inspected within that time.

Later in the day, when Ghattas met again with officials of the high-tech company, the newly released paper in his hand made a good impression, he said.

“Today, I had a very productive meeting with my prospective tenant and I shared with them a copy of the County’s temporary U&O. The response to that was very positive,” Ghattas wrote in a email to the newspaper Thursday night

As a result, Ghattas wrote, he was optimistic that a deal would be reached with the company soon.

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