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January 11, 2007

The Clash of Foresight and Hindsight

John W. Ashbury

It is anathema to some in our community. How in the world can Alderman Donna K. Ramsburg present a rezoning case to the Planning Commission of the City of Frederick?

If successful, Ms. Ramsburg's effort will cost the owners of the property value. And she hasn't even hinted that those owners should be compensated for this "taking."

She has risen from the depths of protest by her fellow residents of Fredericktowne Village over a proposed Canterbury Station development on the Odd Fellows property along North Market and 16th streets, part of the old Gittinger Farm. Of course, she feels what she is doing is within her obligations to those who elected her.

What she fails to point out is that she was a strong proponent - and aggressive lobbyist - for the Land Management Code, adopted by the Dougherty Administration, which allowed this development to move forward in the first place. Had not the changes been made in the rules and regulations, this would not be an issue.

Ms. Ramsburg is seeking to have the zoning on the property reduced from R-16 to R-8, a 50 percent drop in the number of allowable units on the 40-plus acre parcel.

What is unfathomable to many is the decision by the city's Ethics Commission that Ms. Ramsburg is not violating any ethical standards of the city by presenting the case for downzoning to the Planning Commission. Only three of the five members of the ethics panel were in attendance when the decision was made.

Richard Stup, who is chairman of The Ethics Commission, has, in his past, been personally involved in poor ethical decisions. After being reprimanded by the Frederick County Ethics Commission, he resigned his county job, saying he wasn't going to open his personal life to further public scrutiny. Makes one wonder how he got his present city position.

To her credit, Ms. Ramsburg has said she will recuse herself from any formal votes on this matter. Unfortunately, that isn't enough because she wields considerable influence over other members of the Board of Alderman; and, you can bet, she won't be able to keep her mouth shut on her request when talking to her fellow aldermen.

The decision of The Ethics Commission raises the question of whether or not the ethics rules under which this decision was made should be updated and otherwise revised. The commission cannot make rulings outside the parameters of the ethics ordinance. If it isn't addressed there, it isn't a violation of the city's ethics rules. This doesn't mean that what she is doing is proper and ethical. It just doesn't violate the city's ethics code.

It hardly seems reasonable that a citizen without a financial interest in a property can propose zoning changes that will reduce the value of a property. Ms. Ramsburg says she is doing this as a private citizen and not as an alderman.

It is impossible to wear two hats in a situation such as this. She can't be an alderman one minute and just a plain old citizen the next.

She is not a lawyer, but perhaps she should hire one. A land-use attorney will be far more familiar with all the rules and regulations of the city governing such action by an elected official as well as an ordinary citizen. She is speaking from her heart and than can be awful dangerous. Although she is an alderman, and has been for many years, she hasn't studied all city ordinances to see if she, in fact, does have a conflict of interest here.

Should the mayor and Board of Aldermen approve this downzoning, you can bet the case will be resolved finally way down the road - and by the state's highest court.

There is perhaps another solution to this. Mayor Jeff Holtzinger wants to locate, acquire and develop a regional park within the city to partially satisfy the recreation demands of city residents. (This parcel may be much too small to meet the mayor's vision.)

Why can't the city purchase the property and use it to satisfy that need? The city may even be able to work out a purchase payable over a period of several years.

This would solve several problems Ms Ramsburg has with the possible development of the property as residential housing.

First, it would reduce traffic flow in the area - except during the time when the park is being fully utilized.

Second, it would retain the green space aspects of the area.

Third, it would answer the demands of many citizens who want to see a reduction in the number of housing units being built in the county.

Fourth, with water such a precious commodity these days, it should follow that the people using a park will not consume anywhere near as much water as a 500+ unit housing development.

There's a lot of fuss over what is still being called Canterbury Station, although the developer has withdrawn those plans. More consternation over this project has been spent than is necessary.

Ms. Ramsburg's downzoning request may seem expedient by her supporters and those opposed to any further housing in the city. Eventually it may cost the city taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses - to say nothing of the time the rest of our city officials will spend discussing the issue.

Outraged citizens express their concerns and demand action. Ms. Ramsburg is answering that call - inappropriately, however, in this case. She should have recruited a private advocate for her position and then been vocal in her support.

No one seems to be examining other solutions. Everyone seems to want to "make the developers pay." It's time for our city fathers and mothers used their foresight rather than their hindsight to solve problems.

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