Homeowners troubled by growth on U.S. 40 But officials say it's under control

September 12, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

More than two decades ago, Michael Berwanger and her husband, Jay, moved to Ellicott City so that he could teach instrumental music at Ellicott Mills Middle School.

"He could look out the window and still see horses grazing on the countryside," Michael Berwanger recalled. "That was the beauty of this area."

But scenes like this are disappearing as new businesses open, especially along U.S. 40. Many homeowners fear that commercial growth will spill over into neighboring areas -- especially after the recent news of yet another shopping center on the busy highway.

"I would like to keep it as country and pastoral as possible," Michael Berwanger said of the area. "Shopping centers just bring more congestion and more housing."

Added Jodi Cascio, former president of the Valley Mede Residents Association: "I think we have quite enough. Our kids are not going to know what a farm looks like. It's amazing how quickly things are being developed."

Although the influx of new residents invites more business growth, development experts say, county officials assert they're doing a good job controlling it along U.S. 40.

"There's always the next resident who wants to change the zoning on his property to commercial, but we have been holding the line," said Marsha McLaughlin, deputy director of the county Department of Planning and Zoning. "Right now, we have the right mix."

That mix includes roughly three miles of gas stations, restaurants, car dealerships and offices separated by residential neighborhoods.

Many of the businesses in the corridor are concentrated in two areas. The biggest parcel straddles U.S. 29, and is bounded by Normandy Woods Drive to the east and Greenway Drive to the west. The other area sits between Bethany and Boones lanes.

"We don't envision stripping development along aimlessly," McLaughlin said. "As soon as you let it go on, it changes the character of the neighborhood around it, and it is generally not well received. And once it gets a foothold, you get other businesses that cluster at the edges."

Leaders' worries

Civic leaders still worry that the corridor will mirror Pulaski Highway in Baltimore County or Ritchie Highway in Anne Arundel County -- two areas where shopping centers seem to outnumber homes.

"We're going the way of Glen Burnie," said Fred R. Brown, current president of the Valley Mede Residents Association, referring to the plaza-deluged jurisdiction in nearby Anne Arundel. "When there's growth, it's hard to stop it."

What local homeowners and county planners can agree on is that U.S. 40 is not the sleepy rural highway it once was when it was built during the 1940s.

As late as 1972, there were only two shopping centers -- Normandy and Chatham Mall -- along the Ellicott City corridor. Since then, more plazas, such as Bethany Center and the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center, have moved to the area.

County planners say the commercial development results from residential growth in Ellicott City and areas just west of it. The corridor is flanked by dozens of neighborhoods, including Glenbrook, Normandy Heights and Valley Mede.

Helps pay the billls

Residents may decry commercial growth, but it helps pay governmental bills they generate.

Howard planning officials have found that a single-family home must be worth about $300,000 for it to generate enough in property taxes to offset the public services its residents use. Businesses -- which pay more in taxes than they receive in public services -- offset the deficit caused by homes.

Commercial development has been a major goal of County Executive Charles I. Ecker's administration, which has tried to increase the county's assessable tax base from commercial property from 20 percent to 25 percent.

According to population figures compiled by the Department of Planning and Zoning, more than 40,000 residents lived in Ellicott City in 1990. By May 1997 -- the latest statistics -- that number had ballooned to almost 48,000.

Similarly, towns such as West Friendship and Marriottsville, west of Ellicott City have grown from about 7,400 in 1990 to nearly 9,000 this year.

A proposed shopping center, Bethany Square, which won approval from zoning officials Aug. 8, will offer less than 12,000 square feet on a 3-acre site of Bethany Lane and U.S. 40. Construction could begin as early as this fall.

A few residents and merchants said they don't mind the addition of a new strip mall.

"It doesn't bother me," said Michele Zurad, who has lived in Ellicott City for 18 years. "It's not like it's a residential neighborhood and all of a sudden they're putting a center there."

Said Will Reich, owner of Jilly's in Enchanted Forest for the past five years: "I think it would help me for no other reason than bringing more traffic into the area. The more traffic that passes this center, the better off we are."

But other residents question whether another center is needed, especially since Bethany Square would sit between the Bethany Center and the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center.

Ann Koch, president of the North St. John's Community Association, noted that it's hard enough to visit the plazas.

"You can't get from one to another without going out on Route 40, turning around, and coming back," she said. "It's no place to be a pedestrian."

Karen Gehringer, who owns Karen's Of Course in Bethany Center, pointed out that Bethany Center has four empty storefronts, Chatham Mall has three, and Normandy Shopping Center has two.

"I think [the area] is saturated," she said with a hint of disgust. "There's always room for something new, but if it's a center with more retail, good luck."

Pub Date: 9/12/97

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