Everyone wanted a commuter train station for Odenton. The politicians, the locals, the new residents.
Warren Halle banked on it when he proposed his Seven Oaks/Town Center project -- 4,700 homes, a commercial district and office buildings, the biggest development in Odenton's history.
So Halle built a house of cards with a new MARC train station as its cornerstone. Alter any part of his blueprint, he warned, and the whole thing would tumble down.
That's just what happened last week when the County Council adopted a bill restricting what could be built in the 218-acre Town Center parcel -- the last of the county's three commercial showplaces. The bill would not affect the 590-acre Seven Oaks community.
Now, a relationship between developer and county that just two months ago appeared all sweetness and light has turned decidedly sour. Insisting the bill is too restrictive, Halle is threatening to pull out of Town Center altogether and build more residential homes on the land. Fuming over a council vote in May to prevent expansion of the Patuxent Wastewater Treatment Plant, Halle says he has to cut the number of homes in Seven Oaks by nearly half.
Not surprisingly, the matter appears headed for the courts. The day after the council adopted its Town Center bill, Halle filed an $18 million lawsuit against the county, claiming it had reneged on a promise to expand the Patuxent plant. And the county is still seeking a $2.1 installment payment -- part of money earmarked for a new elementary school -- Halle purposely defaulted on July 1.
Now Halle says he won't donate land for the train station. And the whole house of cards is threatening to tumble.
The flexibility debate
All along, Halle has linked the commuter station's fate to the Town Centerbill -- much to the consternation of area residents and county and state politicians, who insist the two have nothing to do with one another.
Halle says the Town Center bill restricts his company and Osprey Development Inc., which also is planning on building in Town Center, from working together successfully on the project because it is not flexible enough to promote a mixed-use development and is not specific enough in what is and is not allowed.
But county officials say they don't understand what Halle thinks is restrictive about the bill, which reduces the level of construction allowed by 75 percent, requires that 25 percent of each parcel be open space, mandates a comprehensive site-plan review and puts the land under the counties adequate facilities law.
County planner Kathleen Koch said she cannot understand how Halle is restricted by the bill, especially since his preliminary plans did not even come close to exceeding the density restrictions it outlines. She said the bill was intentionally flexible, not so the county could take control, but so developers could have room to be innovative.
Over the next 270 days, she said, planners and developers will be meeting to figure out just how the Town Center will look, using the bill as a guideline.
"That is why the residents did not want to lose this bill," Koch said.
"A new administration is coming in and there would be no guarantees. This gives them the guarantees."
Stephen Fleischman, vice president of the Halle companies, said the bill's density restrictions are OK, but said he feared the possibility, depending on how the county interprets wetlands and setback regulations, that it could become more strict. He also said that setting aside 25 percent of each parcel for green space is unrealistic for an area slated for dense development.
"People will have to get in their cars and drive from place to place," he said. "It defeats the purpose of what a Town Center is supposed to be."
Fleischman said he will be sending a letter to the county tax office asking for a tax refund, claiming the land is not worth as much with the new guidelines. Halle owns about 140 acres of land in Town Center, assessed at $439,000.
Taxes totaling $11,700 were paid in September; Fleischman says he wants 75 percent of that back, or about $8,800.
Halle connected the Town Center bill to the train station using a complex deal with the state as a linchpin: Halle offered to donate six acres of land for the station, but in return wanted $12.5 million for land the state needs for a road upgrade, along with permission to build ramps directly off Route 32 into Seven Oaks and Town Center.
The ramps, he said, are necessary to prevent gridlock on route 175 caused by Town Center traffic.
The state said the train station land is only worth $1.3 million. State Delegate Marsha G. Perry, D-Crofton, helped work out a compromise that would net Halle $3.5 million for the land, but the developer refused to sign it because of the impending Town Center bill.