March 4, 2004

The county Department of Land Use is willing to allow Edgewood Village Llc. to cut away part of the hillside where a now controversial stone wall once stood in order to stabilize the area and prevent erosion. Paladin Club condominium owners, who want the wall put back, say, however, that is far more than what the situation requires and would further harm their interests.

"The developer is actually ending up in a better situation by violating the law than [it] would by obeying the law," said Richard Abbott, lawyer for Paladin Club Master Association, one of the community's maintenance organizations.

That is not so, said James Edwards, inspections manager for the department and hearing officer presiding over proceedings stemming for the development firm's alleged violations of county regulations and enforcing a subsequent stop-work order blocking removal of remaining portions of the wall. "They (the development firm) aren't better off; they haven't been cut a break," he said.

Edgewood Village, a unit of Pettinaro Construction, hired a contractor to take down the wall after Paladin resident Roy Jackson asked the county Historic Review Board to reverse an earlier decision and look into the structure's possible historic significance. That is key because the board could delay and possibly block approval of the development firm's plan to construct some townhouses if it determines that the wall is historic and should not be disturbed.

Since the wall has been more than disturbed at this point, the situation could pave the way for the board to order, apparently for the first time, restoration of an historic structure.

In any event, the board has reconsidered its earlier decision and will take up the matter at its April meeting, a land use administrative hearing on Mar. 3 was told.

Edgewood Village was previously ordered to retain possession of the stones that were removed and Edwards renewed that instruction as a proviso for approving the stabilization plan. He said no additional stones can be removed, except for any that are now "just lying around." Moreover, he acknowledged in an official proceeding, that the firm could be instructed to restore the wall if it is later found to have violated Unified Development Code provisions regarding subdivision approval. To that end, he ordered that an engineer document the exact position at which the base of the wall stood.

As things stand at this point, Edgewood Village has been found to have violated a regulation that requires a permit for disturbance of more than 5,000 square feet of land. The firm has been fined $200, which its president, Michael Walsh, told Edwards at the hearing has not yet been paid. Edwards  ordered that to be done before he and the department will sign off on the plan.

Some minor modifications of the stabilization plan were also ordered as a condition for its approval.

During a post-hearing session with Abbott and Paladin residents, who were not permitted to participate in the hearing itself, Edwards described the plan as minimal. Referring to the possibility of restoring the wall, he said that by rejecting a more extensive earlier plan "I preserved the capability of doing just that."

Walsh turned down Edwards's invitation to remain for the informal post-hearing discussion. He has repeatedly ignored requests from Delaforum and other media for comments on the situation.

The firm will be allowed to remove the cliff created by removal of the wall and even off a relatively small area near the bottom of the hill at a ratio of one foot of height for each three linier feet. That, Edwards, said would allow replacing the wall in its original position and filling with dirt behind it.

"They can put the dirt back in and recreate the wall exactly like it was," he said.

Abbott claimed that the cliff could be preserved and erosion prevented by installation of a strong silt fence. Silt fences, which are now common at construction sites, are strips of porous plastic which hold back solid material but permit flowing water to pass through.

Once the hillside is regraded, albeit in a small area, "chances that the wall will go back up become less and less," Abbott said.

At one point he said there is a possibility that he and his client, the maintenance organization, will seek a Chancery Court injunction to prevent execution of the stabilization plan if the county approves it. Approval could come as early as Mar. 8 and Walsh told Edwards that the work could be arranged and completed in about two week after approval.

Two other points that could yet impact the approval decision were raised at the post-hearing session.

Jackson said that stabilization could result in removal of several mature trees in addition to those already taken down. They are not only part of the community ambiance residents were promised when they bought their condominium units but also are "historic treasures" in their own right, he said. The Sellers family, on whose former estate the Paladin community stands, collected varieties of trees from around the world.

"You can't tell them to replace the [original] trees. When they're gone, they're gone," Abbott said.

Resident Marie Sims said that, as a purchaser of two of the original condominium units from the development firm that preceded Edgewood Village, she was granted ownership rights to Paladin Drive and a portion of the base of the hillside, which were defined in the original development plan as community common areas.

She said she regarded it as being within her rights to deny Edgewood Village access to "my property" to fulfill a stabilization plan to which she objects.

Edwards agreed to refer that and other points raised during the session to the county Law Department for consideration before he makes his final ruling on the plan.

2004. All rights reserved.

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