The announcement yesterday that developers of a proposed 54,800-seat auto racetrack have chosen Anne Arundel County has put local elected officials in a difficult position.
Facing re-election in the fall, County Council Chairman Bert L. Rice and County Executive John G. Gary must decide whether to support the developers' potentially unpopular request to change county zoning laws to reduce the number of public hearings and appeals for the project.
The Middle River Racing Association sent out news releases yesterday saying it has "focused" its plans to build the $100 million racing complex on 380 acres of industrial land south of Route 32 and west of Fort Meade.
The news came a day after the Timonium-based entrepreneurs said they had ruled out a long-debated site in eastern Baltimore County after negotiations bogged down over traffic concerns.
The developers are also considering a site in Kankakee, Ill., but might end up building tracks there and in Anne Arundel, said Mike Alfinito, a spokesman for the racing association.
The Arundel site is appealing because it is near Baltimore-Washington Parkway and would not require thousands of fans to drive through residential neighborhoods, said Alfinito.
The developers need to move fast if they want to win racing dates from the NASCAR racing league in coming years, Alfinito said.
In an attempt to accelerate the process, the developers asked county officials Dec. 29 for a zoning law change that would classify auto racetracks as a conditional use on industrial land.
That change would mean the developers would not have to go through time-consuming appearances before the county's administrative hearing officer and Board of Appeals, county officials said.
Instead, the developers would face a single public hearing before the County Council to change the zoning laws. A decision by the council on the zoning-law change could not be appealed to the Board of Appeals.
Gary and Rice, both Republicans, have not taken a position on the developers' request for the zoning-law change.
But supporting it could be politically difficult because it would limit the ability of opponents to fight the project, longtime political observers said.
"Politically, it would be much easier for me to step back and have this go through the slower route," said Rice of Odenton, a retired Army colonel. "But if you threw that up in front of [the developers], they might be out of here. It's something I have to think about."
Rice said his office has received about 50 calls from residents of the nearby Russett and Maryland City neighborhoods on the racetrack proposal, and about 45 opposed it.
Gary said yesterday he welcomes the "significant economic development opportunity for Anne Arundel County," which some have estimated could bring $10 million a year in tax revenues.
Sources close to the executive said he has not decided whether to support the zoning-law change sought by the developer.
"The economic benefits are not enough to offset any perception that they [the developers] are shoving this down the throat of the community," said county spokeswoman Lisa Ritter. "They will first have to go out to the community and address any concerns they have about traffic and noise."
In an effort to address concerns of neighbors on these issues, the developers are trying to set up meetings Monday and Jan. 19 with leaders of the Russett community.
Four of five residents of that neighborhood interviewed yesterday said they oppose the racetrack because they fear it would be loud and would bring traffic, strangers and pollution.
Kelly Hatcher, who lives on Orient Fishtail Road, about a half-mile from the site of the proposed track, said he strongly objects to eliminating the ability of neighbors to appeal.
"First of all, I don't like the idea of changing zoning laws for developers," said Hatcher, 30, a software engineer. "And also I think the ability to appeal is very important, because sometimes these projects happen so fast that the community can't really say anything about them."
Pub Date: 1/09/98