Future of auto racetrack far from certain in county


January 18, 1998|By Brian Sullam

IS LANDING A 54,000-seat auto racetrack in Anne Arundel County worth going out on a political limb?

That's the question that County Executive John G. Gary and the seven members of the County Council are asking themselves.

The Middle River Racing Association has set its sights on an abandoned gravel pit in Annapolis Junction, south of Route 32 and west of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

MRRA had hoped to build a track in Baltimore County, but delays forced it to look at alternative sites.

From a number of perspectives, the new site is an improvement over the previous one.

It is next to existing major east-west and north-south thoroughfares. Ingress and egress from the track can be limited to roads that would allow nearby residents to get to and from their houses on race days.

From an environmental perspective, the track will not destroy forest or wetlands, as the project would have necessitated in Baltimore County.

In addition, this site has been designated for industrial use.

Nevertheless, winning approval in Anne Arundel will not be any easier than it was in Baltimore County for MRRA because it wants its track ready by the year 2000 so it can secure racing dates from the Busch Grand National series, the Indy Racing League and the Championship Auto Teams.

MRRA wants assurances that it can wend through the county zoning and permitting process without dealing with appeals and delays.

The 380-acre site the group is looking at has industrial zoning that allows for a great many noxious uses from metal stamping to composting plants.

The issue is not so much the zoning but the process that MRRA must go through to build a track. Under industrial zoning, certain uses must go through a special exception process. That means an administrative hearing officer must hold a hearing in which opponents are allowed to cross-examine witnesses and present their side.

The process can be legalistic and time-consuming.

The conditional use process is more streamlined. It is basically an administrative process that can impose conditions -- such as setbacks, limiting hours of operation, requiring noise and sight buffers and requiring new access roads.

To adhere to its tight timetable, MRRA would like to bypass the special exception process and create a hybrid conditional use process, according to Christopher J. Lencheski, MRRA's general manager.

He says his proposal would allow for public input at every step in the process, but it would limit appeals. Appeals could only be made on issues such as the adequacy of traffic and storm-water management plans or the effectiveness of noise-mitigation measures.

Appeals for cows?

"Contentions about the ability of cows to produce milk five miles from the track would not be appealable," Mr. Lencheski said.

Whether the County Council has the desire to create such a process in an election year is open to question.

At present, politicians who are unconditionally pro-development are politically vulnerable. Many voters are openly hostile to development.

Even though the new General Development Plan cut back the areas where intense development can take place, groups of people in all corners of the county vocally opposed the plan.

Any changes in the zoning or permitting process that are perceived to limit public participation will not sit well with many communities.

ZTC If MRRA goes ahead and presses the council to pass its proposal to create this hybrid conditional use, opposition is likely to arise from unexpected places.

South County impact

Even though the development is dozens of miles from South County, residents there are likely to oppose any change in the development approval process. They would fear a developer might ask for the same consideration for a project in their area.

In addition, Anne Arundel is now in the enviable position of attracting high-quality development. Does an auto racetrack fit into the county's vision of the kind of development it wants to attract?

Even though MRRA projects tens of millions of dollars in revenue and in state and local taxes, no public officials have endorsed the project. Under normal circumstances, a project of this magnitude attracts early and enthusiastic support.

The lukewarm response to this $110 million development indicates elected officials are rather confident that the county is in a good position to secure business and commercial development that would generate more jobs and would be more in keeping with their vision for the county.

Convincing them in an election year that auto racing should be part of their vision may be an uphill task for MRRA.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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