Residents Fear Project's Effect On River, Wetland

October 14, 1990|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff writer

A developer's plans to build an industrial park on the old Freestate Raceway property in North Laurel has area residents concerned that the project will cause irreversible damage to the Little Patuxent River and environmentally fragile wetlands nearby.

Residents say they are particularly worried about the effects of construction on an additional 6.9-acre parcel of forested land fronting the Patuxent River, contiguous with county parkland and next to the old raceway. They warn that development of this watershed site will result in the loss of open space, critical to the preservation and protection of water quality of the Little Patuxent and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.

"We would like to see that river site protected for obvious reasons," said Deb Schultz, a member of the Savage Community Association, which has taken a stand against development of the river front parcel.

"In our neck of the woods, there used to be a lot of forested land and it's just all going. This is one of the few portions that remain in a critical position environmentally and aesthetically and we would like to see it remain that way," Schultz said.

Concerned residents have made county officials aware of their opposition to the project, through letters and petitions, but they say their efforts have been thwarted because the of property's zoning designation.

Though portions of the whole tract are close to the river and include wetlands, the land is zoned for industrial use. Sketch and site development plans in this zoning category don't require Planning Board approval.

As a result, there so far has been been no official forum for public comment as the development proposal works it way through the zoning review process, although the developer, Freestate Racing Associated Limited Partnership, has held informational meetings for residents.

"The problem is the county has no public process, no hearings, no way that the public can have any real input that the developer doesn't allow them," said Ellen Waff, president of the Savage Community Association.

Project sketch plans show that the developer is asking for a special exception from the county Board of Appeals to build a day care center on the 6.9-acre parcel near the river.

The fast food restaurant and gas stations shown in the development's plans for the larger tract also require Board of Appeals approval, a process that includes a public hearing.

But project opponents say that by that time, the zoning process will be too far along for area residents to have any major impact on the development.

In the meantime, residents have decided to pursue other avenues to mitigate the effects of the development, including urging the county administration to acquire the 6.9-acre parcel as parkland.

"It should be public property forever and we would like it to be acquired by Howard County rec and parks," Waff said.

The Freestate Racing Associated Limited Partnership acquired the 107-acre raceway property last year. The proposed 29-building development, now in the mid-stages of the county's zoning review process, includes several warehouses, a hotel, office space, banking facilities, gas stations and a fast food restaurant.

Considered prime real estate because of its location just east of U.S. 1 between Baltimore and Washington, the closed raceway has stood vacant since its sale to the development group. Two arson fires last weekend heavily damaged the grandstands and two buildings at the track.

Gary Lee, a consultant on the raceway project, said the fire hasn't affected plans for the development and construction is expected to begin in spring of 1991.

County officials have had some preliminary discussions with the developers about the possibility of them donating the 6.9-acre parcel to the county as open space or the county's buying the property.

"We're beginning to look into it to see if one, we have a willing seller and two, if it would be feasible for us to buy it," County Executive M.

Elizabeth Bobo said.

Schultz said the county should have taken a first step toward buying the property by getting it appraised before the developer expressed interest in it.

"Once somebody made plans to develop, the county could say 'we have this intention to preserve, we had an appraisal done, the value was such and such,'" she said.

That way, Schultz said, the county wouldn't have to meet the "inflated" price paid by the developer for the property.

Lee said the developer is paying more than $800,000 for the 6.9-acre parcel. He pointed out that the developer has yet to go to settlement on the 6.9-acre parcel, and so doesn't own it yet. However, the parcel is included on development sketch plans.

"If they took a few protective steps I think they'd be in a better position," Schultz said. "But you can't fault this administration on its environmental consciousness."

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