Confronted with what were described as "ambiguous" plans for a $1 billion Asian cultural center, eastern Baltimore County residents urged the Planning Board last night not to revise zoning laws to favor the project.
More than 250 residents gathered at 7 p.m. in the County Council chamber in Towson, and most applauded vigorously after 17 of their neighbors testified that plans for the Worldbridge Center -- still in the preliminary development stage -- were too uncertain and confusing to give its developer, Dean Gitter, the approval he wants for zoning.
"You've laid out a developer's Utopia," complained Lorraine Murray of the Bowerman Loreley Beach Association. "The developer can fail and do anything he wants to with that land."
"Worldbridge is a good concept, but the legislation needs to match the concept and not have 100 things he can do with the property," she added.
Only one person at last night's hearing, in addition to Chris T. Delaporte, the project manager, spoke in favor of the plans.
The Worldbridge Center, which would be built in the Middle River area, is the largest single project ever proposed in the county, officials said. Developers of the plan hope that the project will promote trade with Pacific and Asian countries, including Japan, India, Malaysia and Australia.
China was dropped from the roster after last year's Beijing massacre, although exhibits are planned to honor Chinese culture.
Preliminary plans for the project include a trade center, a retailcenter, a cultural theme park, a hotel complex and recreational facilities.
However, after more than two years of planning for the project, residents claimed they now know no more about how the large-scale facility would impact their community than they did when Mr. Gitter first proposed it.
Some residents complained last night that they needed more time to study each phase of the project before it is presented to the planning board.
"So often we've heard, 'It's too late. The zoning is in place and the project has already been approved,' " said one resident.
Another resident questioned whether Worldbridge would become Baltimore County's Fish Market or Power Plant, only bigger. The reference was to amusement centers featuring multi-theme entertainment that failed at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
David R. Cahlender of Stevens Road said he was opposed to the proposed legislation because affected county residents "just don't know a whole lot about the project."
"This legislation is too broad. It has too many escape clauses. Why not just enforce the laws and regulation on the books?" he said.
Mr. Cahlender said he was concerned that the proposed legislation would not force the developer to submit a final plan before construction begins.
He also was concerned that the proposed zoning would give the developer 15 years to complete the project and allows for the abandonment of the theme park.
He said the zoning also did not provide for significant traffic control and buffers between the community and the site.
John Walker, an Essex teacher, said the project was just another example of the county pushing forth new development without thoroughly considering its impact on existing communities.
"You're putting this project on a fast track. A good project doesn't need special legislation. It will sink or swim on its own," Mr. Walker said.
"This is Baltimore County, not the state of Maryland. We don't have to 'do it now'," he said, quoting an unofficial motto of Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
"Go slow on this project," Mr. Walker urged the board members. "We should be content to do it right, even if takes a long time."
Zoning proposals for Worldbridge Center
Baltimore County planners have proposed a special set of zoning regulations to accommodate the Worldbridge Center, a pan-Asian trade center and theme park proposed for the Middle River area.
The planners combined rules for manufacturing, residential, commercial and amusement areas to create specific regulations for cultural-center parks such as Worldbridge, which is the first project of its kind in the county.
The regulations require that preliminary plans for the center be approved by the County Council, which rarely involves itself with new developments. The project would then go before the County Review Group, which approves all county developments and would monitor the project as it is built.
Under the proposed regulations:
* A cultural-center park would be permitted in most manufacturing zones, except those restricted to heavy industry.
* It would have to be built on at least 400 contiguous acres. At least 25 percent of that land would have to remain open space.
* It could include conference areas, commercial or retail ventures, exhibits and recreational-entertainment centers, lodging and transportation facilities.
* Other uses allowed would be arenas, hospitals, housing for the elderly, child-care facilities, fortune-telling and pawn shops, small agricultural areas, race tracks, light manufacturing and repair shops.
* It could incorporate land, air and water transportation, including heliports and boating facilities, but it would have to have 10 passenger car spaces per acre and 20 bus spaces per 200 acres.
* A cultural-center park could not include open dumps, junk yards, oil refineries, explosives manufacturing, poultry processing or chemical or organic fertilizer manufacturing.
* If the owners should abandon the center for more than 18 months with no plans to reopen it, it would cease to exist as an exception to the zoning regulations and some other land use would be permitted. However, the center's businesses could continue to operate.