Prophecy Of South County Mini-city Nearing Reality

Developer Works With Area Residents To Allay Fears

September 16, 1990|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff writer

His vision of a mini-city sprouting from rural South County's woods infuriated folks for miles around.

Laurel developer Michael T. Rose had come around with what one longtime resident labeled a "dog and pony show," a well-rehearsed sales pitch, glossy maps, artists' renditions -- and a prophecy.

Large-scale development inevitably would crop up around mand make it environmentally friendly, he told residents, or resign yourselves to a sprawling hodgepodge of houses and businesses.

In a matter of months, Rose expects to see the first bulldozers on site at the largest single residential/commercial development South County has ever seen. Anything resembling such a huge development there would have seemed unthinkable just three years ago.

That's when Rose, a developer known for huge, pricey projects in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, shared his vision for 1,400 acres of dense forest near Routes 2 and 214 at the Edgewater-Harwood line. The developer, who has won national recognition for environmentally sound building, assured residents he wasn't about to level acres of trees and stamp out cookie-cutter homes. Rather, he planned a coordinated community of 1,800 homes, 1.5 million square feet of offices and shops, a 36-hole golf course, a marina and an equestrian center.

Stunned, some could hardly believe Rose or anybody else would suggest plunking a new town just miles from beef cattle farms, homes in working class Londontown and the waterways of the Mayo Peninsula.

Residents wanted no part of it. Led by a committee of South County landowners who'd fought to preserve rural space since the early 1970s, a dozen civic and environmental groups urged county lawmakers to deny Rose's request to loosen land-use restrictions. The groups threatened to go to court to stop him, if necessary.

"Here we were trying to protect a rural quality of life in South County," said Charles "Sonny" Tucker, a Byrdsville beef-cattle farmer and president of the South County Zoning Coordinating Committee. "He had this grand city he was gonna build. People either loved it or hated it. It was grand, but it was frightening."

Today, a scaled-down version of South River Colony has just about cleared the last of the county's regulations.

This time, though, nobody's predicting the imminent ruin of South County, talking about massive protests or threatening court challenges.

Robert C. Wilcox, the county's zoning hearing officer, approved zoning last month that will allow 900 homes, 500,000 square feet of offices and shops, a 36-hole golf course, a recreation center and a man-made lake.

The 900 homes include single-family houses, some overlooking the golf course; Georgetown-style town houses with views of a four-acre lake; and several high-priced waterfront homes, as well as "affordable" condominiums and town houses reserved for senior citizens.

Homes will range in price from the affordable, $100,000, to the high-end, $700,000. The $300 million project will take up to 10 years to complete.

At a hearing before Wilcox delivered his order, no one stood up to oppose South River Colony. In fact, nearby residents are quick to point out benefits from the new community: a 20-acre county park Rose donated, pathways to new stores, additional jobs, a plan to save trees and open space, and homes that will allow senior citizens and young people to stay in South County.

More importantly, residents feel certain they'll be hit with no future surprises. Their security stems from written agreements Rose negotiated with three community groups, signed in 1988.

Agreements with the Londontown Property Owners Association, Mayo Civic Association and the South County Coordinating Committee, Inc. limit the total number of homes to 900. The covenants also keep stores, offices, town houses and condos north of Route 214, guarantee 40 percent open space and shield older neighborhoods from South River Colony with trees.

In exchange for his concessions, Rose got support for the 1988 zoning designation allowing a mix of development.

Such give-and-take with a developer on a major project is new territory for nearby South County residents, long known for their power to quash projects they oppose.

With development pressures pushing southward in Anne Arundel, many residents of an area long-considered the gateway to rural South County may lament the loss of the countryside.

At the same time, however, they seem to have concluded it's better to decide what's built where now, and avoid a development free-for-all later.

Maryellen O. Brady, president of the Londontown group, isn't the only one to fear a Route 2 transformation into "Ritchie Highway South."

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