Rural and commercial face off across road Plan for strip mall on Montgomery renews sprawl issue

July 21, 1998|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

A half-mile stretch of Montgomery Road has become a crossroads where old and new Ellicott City meet.

On one side, there are old homes and large, green pastures left from farms. But on the other side, five traffic lanes away, there are growing subdivisions and the county's second-largest shopping center, Long Gate.

While development has led to homes for thousands, two Montgomery Road residents who have lived there a combined 99 years want to leave. They say the roadside community they knew is gone forever.

Ralph Bathgate and Mary Grace Howard believe their solution is to accept what many see is still the problem. If they can get their property rezoned, they're ready to sell to a company that wants to build a strip mall directly across from Long Gate Shopping Center.

The mall would be on a 6-acre tract that has four houses, two owned by Bathgate, one by Howard and one owned and abandoned by Mary Wine, who lives in West Virginia.

But newcomers to the road who live in the Wheatfield subdivision object to the rezoning, saying it could eventually drive them out of their homes.

"This is scary to us," said Alan Pomerantz, who says his house dropped about 14 percent in value after Long Gate was completed in 1995. "Once it is over-commercialized our homes will drop [additionally in value]."

The Howard County Zoning Board has scheduled a second hearing on the issue Thursday morning.

Similar concerns are growing among many communities farther east along Montgomery Road as the county continues to develop. Residents worry about erosion of their quality of life.

For Bathgate and Howard to change their zoning -- to which Wine is agreeable -- they must show the Zoning Board that a mistake was made in designating their land residential or that the area has changed in character.

"It's a strange combination of the single-family homes and commercial development," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the county Department of Planning and Zoning, referring to the property across from Long Gate. "I think the big issue is whether these areas can ever be redeveloped for commercial or residential uses."

The Zoning Board decided July 8 not to rezone a neighboring property, and Rutter believes the board will come to the same decision concerning the proposed strip mall rezoning.

Whatever the board does, Bathgate and Howard believe they can no longer live in Ellicott City. When they moved in, their houses looked out to farm land.

"My grandfather bought this as a [dairy] farm," said Bathgate, 46, who has lived there since he was born. "It was a typical farm."

Bathgate grew up in two houses on Montgomery Road, his grandfather's and his family's. He points to where his family grew a large garden.

Where the garden was is now part of Montgomery Road. The farm land he looked out to is now the Long Gate center.

The area began to change in the 1970s, when developers created four middle-class developments, building about 1,000 single-family homes. The developments led to Long Gate, which was begun in 1993.

"It's been pretty good until the shopping center came here," said Howard, who moved in in 1945. Montgomery Road residents, and members of nearby Bethel Baptist Church, contend that development created an unsafe and noisy area. They say that Montgomery Road traffic is so heavy that it is dangerous to pull out from their homes and the church.

"To make a left hand turn [from the church] is to take your life in your hands," said the Rev. Bruce A. Romoser, the pastor.

The mall developer believes the residents' complaints underscore the reason to rezone the land to commercial use.

"This all comes down to the question, 'Would you want to live here?' " asked Triangle Development Corp. representative Chris Pippen, whose company wants to create the strip mall.

He said growth is creating a demand for the strip mall to provide what Long Gate does not.

"There is a need for additional retail," Pippen said. "What is not here [are smaller stores such as] a Baskin-Robbins, a Bagel Bun, a Hair Cuttery [and] a dry cleaners."

But Wheatfield residents don't buy that argument.

"There are 6 acres there. That's a nice little [potential residential] subdivision," Pomerantz said, adding that Bathgate and Howard could find buyers for their houses. But, he said, "they can make more money if they sell it as commercial."

"There are plenty of other uses," said David Catania, Wheatfield Community Association treasurer. Catania moved from Prince George's County because he felt there was too much development there.

"I don't want the same problem to arise in Howard," he said.

Pub Date: 7/21/98

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