Zoning board rejects bid for retreat, conference center near Mount Airy

February 27, 1994|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Sun Staff Writer

The Carroll Board of Zoning Appeals voted unanimously Friday to deny a Mount Airy man's request to open a retreat and conference center on West Falls Road.

The three-member board said that the business James J. Sweet wanted to open on his 22-acre property does not meet the county's definition of a retreat and conference center, and that it would harm the neighborhood.

About 25 neighbors attended the 5-hour hearing at the County Office Building to protest Mr. Sweet's plans.

Mr. Sweet wanted to open a center for corporate, religious and educational gatherings at West Falls Farmstead in the 5600 block of W. Falls Road, between Mount Airy and Taylorsville. Mr. Sweet lives in a log house on the land and is co-owner of a Gaithersburg catering business.

Westminster attorney Brian M. Bowersox, who represented the neighbors, said Mr. Sweet actually was proposing to open a recreation center where companies and other groups would have picnics.

"It's really a wolf in sheep's clothing," Mr. Bowersox said. "The sheep is the retreat and conference center. The wolf is the recreation center. This is nothing more than a catering hall that doesn't have four walls."

County zoning law defines a retreat or conference center as a facility used for professional, educational or religious meetings, or seminars where meals and recreational activities may be provided for participants.

Mr. Sweet testified that he would operate the business part time from May through October and probably would schedule 20 to 30 events a year. The average size of groups using the property would be 200 people, but he said the property could handle as many as 500.

Caterers would provide food and drink, and he said his company, Smokey Glen Farm, would get some of the business.

Jay C. Planalp Jr. of the 5600 block of W. Falls Road said activity and noise from the center would chase away wildlife in the area.

"I value my lifestyle in Carroll County immensely," Mr. Planalp said. "This will dramatically and adversely affect this lifestyle."

Jose Richard Matheus of the 5700 block of W. Falls Road said he worried that increased traffic would endanger his children, ages 4, 8 and 11. He and his family moved to the neighborhood ZTC because it was "a safe, quiet, rural area."

Mr. Matheus also said he worried that alcohol served at the center's events would adversely affect his children's morals. "I'm opposed to a facility being used for commercial gain at the expense of my children," Mr. Matheus said.

Arthur Vespignani of the 5600 block of Olde Oak Drive said he moved to the neighborhood from Reisterstown for the fresh air.

Since his move, he takes less asthma medication and his 10-year-old daughter has been able to stop taking medicine for the same ailment. Exhaust fumes from increased traffic could be harmful to them, he said.

Oliver Ridgely of the 600 block of Ridge Road opposed Mr. Sweet's plan, but apologized about it.

"Mr. Sweet seems to be a nice fellow. I hate to go against him," said Mr. Ridgely, who said he has owned land adjacent to Mr. Sweet's since the 1940s. "I believe to approve Mr. Sweet's request would be a big step backward."

Mr. Ridgely, who has developed 158 acres in the area as Ridgely Estates, also said Mr. Sweet's proposal caused him to lose a buyer for one of his lots.

Mr. Sweet testified that his land is surrounded on all sides by trees that would screen activities at his center from neighbors.

He said he would control all music and public-address system levels and would supervise all events to ensure that alcohol was served properly.

Events would end at 8 p.m. or dusk, whichever was earlier. No one would stay overnight, he said.

Mr. Sweet said he did not plan to drill new wells or install new septic systems because caterers would bring in drinking water and he would rent portable toilets.

A traffic engineer testified that West Falls Road could handle increased traffic generated by the center.

After talking privately with County Attorney Isaac Menasche for 20 minutes, the Board of Zoning Appeals discussed the case briefly in open session before taking a vote.

Member Karl V. Reichlin said Mr. Sweet's proposal seemed more like a for-profit recreation center than a retreat and conference center.

Member Woodrow Raver said the center would be detrimental to the neighborhood.

Chairman Claude R. Rash said, "This is really stretching the point of a retreat as it was intended in the ordinance."

Mr. Sweet has 30 days to appeal the decision to Carroll Circuit Court.

L He said Friday that he did not know whether he would appeal.

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