MOUNT AIRY — The idea of commercial development near a neighborhood often sends residents running to Town Hall to object.
However, in this South Carroll community Monday night, the opposite happened.
Many of the 35 people who came out to a public hearing said they oppose a developer's request to rezone 13 acres behind the Mount AiryShopping Center from commercial to residential.
The property owner, Merridale Gardens Limited Partnership Inc., wants the undeveloped land rezoned from commercial to the town's highest-density residential zoning, to pave the way for a 90-unit town-house development.
During a hearing before the Town Council, company representatives said the property -- north of Ridgeville Boulevard between South Main Street and the shopping center -- is plagued by access and visibility problems that make it unattractive as a commercial tract.
"Lack of visibility makes it next to impossible to develop commercially," said John T. Maguire, an attorney representing the developer.
What's unusual is that a change from the business zoning to Mount Airy's highest-density residential zoning still would be tantamount to a "downzoning" because it is considered a "lesser use," said Town Planner TeresaBamberger. Also, a residential use would generate less traffic than a commercial use, she said.
Still, many who attended the hearing were residents of South Main Street and nearby Merridale Gardens and were worried about the effect the proposed development would have on adjacent areas.
"At least with commercial (development), I know things quiet down at night," said South Main Street resident Don Brightwell.
Still, the developer said attempts to market the property to Wal-Mart, K mart, Jamesway, Caldor, Hechinger, Chanel, Ben Franklin and others all failed.
"If the town wants to keep the land vacant .. . that would be accomplished by a lack of rezoning," said Richard Reiman of the partnership seeking the rezoning.
In a report to thecouncil, Bamberger agreed that the lack of visibility is a problem for commercial operations such as fast-food restaurants, chain retail stores and service stations.
But Bamberger said the parcel still would be a viable site for other businesses -- such as office space orcrafts shops -- that don't rely so heavily on a high-profile location.
Jim Moxley, who owns two acres nearby on South Main Street, told the council he's had three offers in recent years from commercial ventures -- including a funeral home and a medical office developer --interested in his property, which is zoned residential.
Reiman stressed the need in Mount Airy for "moderately priced" housing and said the price of homes in the proposed development would be between $117,000 and $130,000.
The developer argued that a mistake was made in the original zoning of the property, one of the grounds on which the council can approve the rezoning. Also, the developer contends thatthere has been significant change in the surrounding area to warranta change in the zoning.
"The council failed in 1982 (during the most-recent comprehensive rezoning) to consider the visibility problemand the access problem," Maguire said.
During an earlier review of the request, the town's Planning Commission disagreed on both points, and voted to recommend that the council deny the rezoning. The commission also raised questions about increased traffic.