Retail center draws appeal Planners file suit to block development at Londontown Blvd.

June 17, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The Carroll planning commission voted unanimously yesterday to take the county Board of Zoning Appeals to court over its decision to allow a developer to build a $32 million shopping center near a busy intersection in Eldersburg.

Although the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission has appealed more than a dozen board decisions in the past two years, yesterday's vote behind closed doors is the first case in which the planning commission was not directly involved.

At least not yet.

The shopping center project was on line to start moving through the county development review process next month and was expected to come before the planning commission for site plan approval in the fall.

The appeal could slow that process a little or a lot. State law governing the planning commission allows it or "any officer, department, board, or bureau of the jurisdiction" to file suit in Circuit Court when "aggrieved by any decision of the board of appeals."

Settlement of suits can take from a few weeks to a few years. If developer Bernard G. Robbins of Talles-Robbins Development Co. in Eldersburg is confident that he will win the appeal quickly, he might continue to move his plans through the development review process.

Robbins' attorney, William B. Dulany, who learned of the appeal from a reporter yesterday, said he would have no comment until after consulting with Robbins.

A divided appeals board voted 2-1 on April 20 to allow Robbins to proceed with his plans to develop three restaurants, a 14-screen theater with stadium seating, a 300,000-square-foot retail complex and a two-story office center on 36.11 acres adjoining Londontown Boulevard and Route 32.

The site is zoned for industrial use, but the board granted Robbins a conditional use, allowing him to move forward with his plans.

Planning commission members did not offer a rationale for their appeal yesterday, but member Grant S. Dannelly of Marriottsville has long opposed what he sees as the erosion of Carroll's industrial base to commercial uses in South Carroll.

Long-vacant site

Supporters of the shopping center have noted, however, that the Londontown Boulevard site has been vacant for more than two decades. It is likely to remain vacant, they say, if the county does not convert it to commercial use.

Robbins' shopping center request became one of the most protracted cases in appeals board history. The county Economic Development Department supported the project, but nearby residents and merchants at a two-decade-old shopping mall a mile away opposed it.

Westminster attorney Michelle Ostrander, who represented the disgruntled neighbors and merchants, characterized the proposed shopping center as "vastly oversized for Eldersburg," a project designed more to serve people from neighboring counties than the local community.

"If it were appropriatedly sized, it would not have to be marketed in three counties," she told the appeals board in her closing argument.

Not 'Nimbys'

Her clients were not "Nimbys" -- people who say, "Not in my back yard" -- but residents who knew that they were buying houses next to an industrial park, Ostrander said. However, they hadn't counted on living next to one of the largest commercial centers in the county, she said.

Dulany said in his closing remarks April 20 that the proposed shopping center would become a town center -- one of the most attractive areas in the county.

Not only would it be "rated a 10 on a scale from one to 10," but it would be a moneymaker, putting $700,000 a year into the county coffers, he said. In addition, the developer would spend an estimated $800,000 to improve the congested Route 26-Route 32 intersection, Dulany said.

Ostrander disagreed. "The idea that monetary manna is going to fall down from heaven [once the center is completed] is not a reasonable expectation," she said. Intersection repairs might cost a lot more than $800,000, she said.

Only James Schumacher, the appeals board chairman, was impressed with her arguments.

"The project is way ahead of its time," he said, before voting against the project. He agreed that the center would cause traffic problems not only at the busy intersection, but also on nearby residential streets.

Schumacher said he felt the appeals board was not the right place for such a large project to be considered. It should have been considered as the county was revising its master plan to guide growth, he said.

"The project is too big for the area," he said.

His colleagues on the appeals panel, Hoby D. Wolf and Karl V. Reichlin, didn't buy that argument.

"I'm a deal maker, not a deal breaker," Wolf said before his vote for the project. The Route 26-Route 32 intersection is predicted to fail in four years anyway, so why not get $800,000 for improvements, Wolf said.

Traffic concerns discounted

Reichlin said before his vote that he was not concerned about the 15,000 trips a day that traffic experts have predicted the center would bring, because many of those trips would come at other than peak hours.

"It's going to create traffic," he said, "but in my mind the good points outweigh some of the bad points."

The county planning office has the "expertise and the clout" to require what is needed to mitigate traffic congestion, he said.

Pub Date: 6/17/98

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