Owings Mills zoning plea stirs concern Some fear project would compromise community's vision

Stores, restaurants proposed

Supporters see plan as boost to area that has had gains, setbacks


The offer would seem to make any county official's mouth water: A respected developer promises to build more than 500,000 square feet of stores and restaurants, a project forecast to generate millions of tax dollars.

In revenue-hungry Baltimore County, officials acknowledge the project is tempting -- "pretty juicy" in the words of economic development chief Robert L. Hannon.

But county officials are offering only a polite no-thanks to Manekin Corp.'s proposed Daniel Mills Center.

At issue, they say, is the very soul of Owings Mills, a corporate center that features companies such as mutual fund giant T. Rowe Price and insurance brokers Alexander & Alexander.

In an area that has seen triumphs and setbacks -- and only now is getting a long-delayed road extension for a final stage of development -- requests to rezone the Manekin land and nearby parcels are drawing concern from the biggest of corporate bigwigs to the smallest businesspeople. "I'm here because I expect a certain standard to be maintained, and all of the zoning requests are a lowering of standards," says Douglas W. Hamilton Jr., president of Hamilton Associates Inc., which makes elevator components.

"It begins to change the character of the area, and it's the character that attracted me as an employer and attracted the prestigious corporations."

A glossy brochure describes Manekin's plan for warehouse-sized stores in a handsome complex of brick buildings set amid lush landscaping.

But county economic and planning officials want to stick with a long-term plan emphasizing light industry and office development in Owings Mills. The idea is to create well-paid jobs as a return on money spent on roads and sewer lines, and to avoid hurting businesses on Reisterstown and Liberty roads.

And Doug Gies, owner of the Old Reisterstown Bait and Tackle Shop, says the last thing his small business needs is competition from yet another megastore.

"I was going to put a sign on the door saying, 'Go shop at the chains. We'll all have a job there,' " says Mr. Gies, whose family has been in retailing in the area for a half-century. "This is getting totally out of hand."

Hearing set April 23

As Manekin pushes its plan -- the county planning board will hold a hearing on it and other requests April 23, and the County Council will make the final decision on the issue in the fall -- bulldozers are pushing dirt for the long-awaited extension of Red Run Boulevard. The road and the accompanying sewer line extension are designed to allow a prime 1,000-acre site to be developed.

The improvements -- and the rezoning requests from Manekin and two adjacent landowners -- come at the latest turning point in the development of Owings Mills, one of two county VTC communities designated for high growth.

For evidence of the triumphs, county officials point to projects such as the Owings Mills Corporate Campus, where T. Rowe Price has a $50 million expansion under way. Although development within Owings Mills was originally expected to be completed within five years, it has grown more slowly because of economic slumps and environmental concerns.

For years the vision for Owings Mills focused on the idyllic image of a lake dappled with sailboats. The 100-acre lake, which would have been created by damming the Red Run trout stream, was to have been the centerpiece of a classy corporate campus.

The county spent a decade and $2 million trying to win permission for the lake from state and federal officials. In the end, there would be no lake. A stream valley park would have to do.

"The real disaster for Owings Mills was the loss of the lake," said Brenda Crabbs, director of the Owings Mills Corporate Round Table, a consortium of area businesses. "The real challenge is to find something new to focus on to make the area special."

Environmental issues also delayed the road extension -- more than a dozen paths were considered before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted approval.

Even now, the issues that come with developing raw land continue to crop up. As the two-mile sewer extension is being built, a team of archaeologists is combing the area for centuries-old pottery and Indian artifacts.

The reason for more than $10 million in infrastructure investment can be seen in the plans of Timonium-based Riparius Development Corp., which owns 160 acres in the Red Run

Boulevard area. Riparius has approval for an office park with 3.5 million square feet of space, along with banks and stores.

Frustrating delays

Asked whether the delays have been frustrating, James Flannery, president of Riparius, says, "Very much so -- but we're there. All that's behind us."

He sees no problem with the Manekin proposal.

"It will be an enhancement to the area," he says, adding that current zoning does not guarantee the classy development the county seeks.

Although disappointed at the lack of an endorsement from county economic and planning officials, Manekin is not giving up.

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