Thursday, February 16, 2006

The debate that just won't die...

There are two stories dealing with The Plaza building -- the 22-story condo tower recently approved by the Planning Board -- in today's Flier. Here's the first one.

A group of Columbia residents is challenging the approval of a 22-story high-rise condominium in downtown Columbia, claiming that the building is out of line with the county's zoning code.

The four-person group, led by former County Council member Lloyd Knowles, filed an appeal Feb. 14 of the Planning Board's Jan. 18 decision to approve the planned 275-foot Plaza Residences.

...The group argues that the zoning for the Plaza property was incorrectly changed in 2002 to allow additional residential units. The 160-unit Plaza Residences would exceed the threshold of residential-units-to-acreage set in the unique New Town zoning code that governs development in Columbia, Knowles said.

Before sending a site development proposal to the Planning Board for its approval, county planners conduct a review of the proposal and, in doing so, normally set criteria that allow the Board to determine a building's height, Knowles said.

In the case of the Plaza, however, the Planning Board misinterpreted the plan and therefore incorrectly believed that it had no authority to limit the building's height.

Well that is certainly interesting. If it turns out that the Planning Board did have the power to set a height limit, we may be in for a very messy situation. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. As for exceeding the residential-units-to-acreage ratio, that sounds like a dead end argument to me, given the fact that I know General Growth still has a healthy allotment of residential units in Columbia. Regardless, their case may have some merit.

So, what do others have to say about this appeal?

Marsha McLaughlin, the director of Howard County's Department of Planning and Zoning, could not be reached for comment.

...Tammy CitaraManis, chairwoman of the county Planning Board could not be reached for comment.

Anthony Albanese, division president of WCI Communities Inc., which is building the condominium complex, could not be reached for comment.

Allrighty then.

On the other hand, an argument that doesn't have merit, apparently, is the complaint that the Howard County Fire Department would have difficulty responding to a fire or other emergency at The Plaza.

Firefighters could handle a blaze at a 22-story high-rise condominium planned for downtown Columbia, despite concerns from residents that its size would overtax the county's safety and rescue resources, according to Howard County's deputy fire chief.

The 275-foot building - which would be the tallest in Howard County - likely would prove less of a fire hazard than some older Columbia buildings because it is slated to contain a sprinkler system, emergency lighting and fire alarms that other buildings might lack, deputy fire chief Kevin Simmons said.

Well, that settles that, right? The deputy fire chief, presumably acting under the orders of the actual fire chief, should know better than pretty much everyone -- certainly non-fire fighting types -- whether his men can meet the challenges posed by the building. Apparently, not.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat, said she grew concerned when the fire department issued a "no comment" in its review of the building's site development plan.

...The fire department's "no comment" response seemed "careless" and "risky," said Bobo, who blames the county Planning and Zoning Department for not requiring fire officials to draw up a plan for fire safety at the building.

...Fire officials said Bobo has misconstrued the "no comment."

Such a response does not mean that the department is refusing to address a site development plan, but that officials have reviewed the plan and found that the building meets standards set in the fire prevention code, Simmons said.

Bobo countered this week that the Plaza Residences is not a routine project and therefore requires more than a routine response from the county.

"Is it routine to build a building that is twice as tall as any building in Howard County?" Bobo asked. "It's a very cavalier, careless response. I do know there are different methods for fighting a fire in a 275-foot building than a 175-foot building."

Simmons said that a high-rise such as the Plaza would require a substantial number of firefighters to help evacuate its residents compared to that needed to evacuate a smaller complex. But the Plaza's planned sprinklers and other safety features would help control a fire there, he said.

Smaller buildings in Columbia that contain no sprinklers pose a potentially greater fire risk than the Plaza, he added.

"The Plaza, if it is built to the current building code, would be less hazardous than some of the high-rises we have in the county that have no sprinkler protection," Simmons said. "Sprinklers have such an advantage in controlling or putting out a fire."

(Sorry for the long excerpt.)

While I appreciate Bobo's concern for the yet unknown residents of the Plaza, I take issue with her calling the Fire Department "careless" and "cavalier." I don't know why one would think fire officials wouldn't give an honest, unbiased review of the plan. What do they have to gain? A tragedy and liability? I don't, however, want to single Bobo out on this, because I think this type of attitude has become pervasive in our society and I think it's doing real harm. And I blame the internet.

In this age of information, everyone's an expert on everything. All it takes is a quick trip to Google or Wikipedia and suddenly we can speak fluently at cocktail parties (do people still have cocktail parties?) about everything from fire fighting tactics to global warming to stem cell research. Meanwhile, the real experts -- those who have devoted their lives to these topics -- are questioned, discredited, or ignored by those more interested in using information for "other" reasons. The assault on science by politicians, particularly our current federal administration, is the most troubling and obvious example of this.

Shifting the focus back to our community, we've got the Charrette, which was designed to include all citizens, regardless of their understanding of urban planning principles. By tasking professional planners with the job of interpreting and distilling the visions of the regular people, we could balance the needs, desires, and hopes of citizens with the realities of developing a town center over 30 years. The experts, in other words, serve as translators, turning the language of people into a workable plan.

The problem is, once we've destroyed the credibility of the experts, we've lost their expertise, or at least their expertise has lost its validity. We should certainly keep an eye on them and the work they produce and criticize it when necessary, but we shouldn't try to do their job for them. After all, we pay them for this, right? What's more, nothing they do is final; the council -- our source for accountability -- has the final say, and if they vote for something entirely out of step with the will of the people, well, they'll lose their jobs. Because the one thing we're all truly experts in is determining the outcome of elections.

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