Developer seeks smooth ride with county on raceway plan Essex-Middle River project faces obstacles

March 27, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Promoters of a motor sports raceway in Essex-Middle River launched an effort to negotiate the low-speed, winding path through Baltimore County's bureaucracy at a meeting yesterday of high-level county officials.

From zoning to wetlands, traffic and financing, heads of key county departments pointed out problems and possible solutions to John B. Gontrum, the point man for developer Joe Mattioli's Middle River Racing Associates.

"I don't want to make this another Worldbridge. That's my worst fear," Gontrum said after the meeting, referring to the Asian theme park and world trade center proposed 10 years ago for the same 1,000-acre parcel between Eastern Boulevard and Pulaski Highway, near Martin State Airport.

Despite early fanfare from New York-based promoter Dean Gitter, the Worldbridge proposal went nowhere. To prevent a similar result, Gontrum asked county administrative officer Merreen E. Kelly and the directors of five key departments to help him determine where and how to start overcoming procedural obstacles for the $100 million project.

Gontrum said the developers obtained an option this month to buy the land from the owners, the A.V. Williams Trust and the University of Maryland, and he wants to obtain zoning approval and complete the county's formidable development-permit process within a year.

He said they hope to open the track in 1999, with seating for up to 40,000 spectators. A later expansion might double the seating, and an office building of six or seven stories may be built in 1999. Other ideas, such as a driving school and an entertainment and restaurant complex, are under study, he said.

But that timetable may be optimistic, according to several of the county officials.

Arnold Jablon, director of permits and development management, said Gontrum first must get County Council approval for a zoning law change to enable a racetrack to be built at the site. There are no sites in the county zoned to allow for-profit raceways.

Charles R. Olsen, public works director, said construction of the White Marsh Boulevard extension through the property -- which would be needed to handle raceway traffic -- won't begin for at least four years, and would take at least two years to complete.

George G. Perdikakis, director of environmental protection and resource management, said the 400 acres of wetlands scattered through the site like the coloring on a Pinto pony mean, "This is not going to be an easy project. You have massive wetlands in there we're not going to be interested in disturbing."

The track is planned for the property's north end, which has no wetlands, Gontrum said.

Perdikakis worried that large parking lots for race fans could cause water runoff problems in adjacent low areas.

Kelly said that despite all of the problems, County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger wants the developers to "get a fair shake." Ruppersberger has said he supports the project.

Economic Development Commission director Robert L. Hannon asked for more specific information on financing the group has obtained, citing the major effort most departments will have to expend working on the proposal.

"I think my clients have the go power to do it," Gontrum said, adding that they have spent roughly $1 million to hire engineers, traffic, environmental, financial and legal experts, and are committed to conduct the expensive studies first, before it is clear if the raceway can be built.

In addition, Gontrum said, he wants the studies done before going to the public to present the details of the evolving project.

"I don't want to go to a public meeting and say 'I don't know' " to questions on the project, he said.

Pub Date: 3/27/97

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