Track developers seek change in zoning laws They hope to sidestep some hearings in Arundel

January 02, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Racing to meet a self-imposed deadline of 60 days for `D preliminary approval, developers of a $100 million auto racetrack proposed for Anne Arundel County are seeking to change local zoning laws to avoid some time-consuming public hearings.

The Middle River Racing Association gave County Council Chairman Bert L. Rice a proposal Monday for legislation that would allow such a track as a "conditional use" rather than as a "special exception" on 380 acres of industrial land west of Fort Meade.

That seemingly academic distinction could steer the project around a roadblock that doomed a proposal three years ago to build a Washington Redskins football stadium not far from the site.

The hurdle the stadium failed to clear was a six-week series of public hearings before the county's administrative hearing officer, who denied the special exception in August 1994.

If the racing association gets the zoning laws changed to make the racetrack a "conditional use" for industrial land, the developers could avoid hearings before the hearing officer and, potentially, before the Board of Appeals, county officials said.

Changing the law would require a hearing before the County Council, but completing that step probably wouldn't take as long as the year or more the other route could take, said longtime observers of the county's approval process.

William Badger, a vice president of Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp., which is trying to help the racetrack developers, said speed is critical because the developers are trying to claim racing dates before entrepreneurs building tracks in other states can get them.

"In the next two months, this will have to move forward or the window of opportunity will close for the developers," said Badger. "The next 60 days will decide this matter."

Some residents of western Anne Arundel County who worry about the noise and pollution from a racetrack oppose any reduction in the number of required public hearings.

"My response to that is: Over my dead body," said Jeanne Mignon, vice president of the board of the Russett Homeowners' Association, which represents 2,000 households about a half-mile from the proposed site.

"Tampering with the laws that are designed to protect the people of Anne Arundel County would make people in this area very angry," Mignon said.

Rice, a Republican from Odenton, said Wednesday that he has not decided whether to sponsor or support the proposed legislation. His backing could be important because he is the ZTC local district's representative and the council's chairman.

He said he might consider introducing the legislation to the council if the developers held several public meetings on their own and won the approval of nearby Russett and Maryland City.

"I want to be very deliberate about this and make sure this is the best thing for the county," said Rice. "I don't want to be pressured or rushed through any of this and I don't want to make a mistake that we will regret later."

Badger said the developers aren't looking for a full council vote within 60 days -- just preliminary support from Rice, County Executive John G. Gary and other top officials and an indication whether the industrial zoning on the site will accommodate the track.

Most construction projects of this size have taken considerably longer to win county approval -- although Gary has been trying to speed up the building approval process for commercial projects.

In addition to a 54,800-seat racetrack that could be expanded to 100,000 seats, developers are looking to build a restaurant with a racing theme and a souvenir shop, said Chris Lencheski, general manager of the Middle River Racing Association.

The association -- which is also considering other sites -- hopes to hold NASCAR-league races, as well as motorcycle races and occasional monster-truck rallies, Lencheski said.

Lencheski said the track proposal is different from the stadium proposal because cars won't have to go through any residential neighborhoods to get to the track site. They can drive down Route 32 onto the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, he said.

The association has been meeting one-on-one with local political leaders and is planning an informal discussion with community groups this month.

Pub Date: 1/02/98

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