Sykesville isn't playing fair with Fairhaven


June 06, 1999|By MIKE BURNS

COMPARED WITH a cement factory or a mega-store or even a restaurant, a retirement center is a desirable choice for a neighbor. But to some folks in north Sykesville, it looks just as unattractive as any other business.

Episcopal Ministries to the Aging, whose Fairhaven Retirement Community has been in the town for 23 years, wants to build a headquarters on its own land across Third Avenue from the retirement center. The structure would consolidate administrative staff from three facilities, employing about 40 people, most of whom already work at Fairhaven.

The problem is that the nonprofit institution needs the 3-acre parcel rezoned from residential to business. And that requires approval of the Sykesville town council, which last month voted 6-1 to reject the request, based on vigorous objections from the neighborhood that surrounds the Episcopal Ministries' land.

The council said the organization did not prove a substantial change in the character of the area or a mistake in the original zoning.

Mayor Herman's stand

Mayor Jonathan Herman was the lone dissenter. He voted first on the question, before the council members. He knew how the wind was blowing, but he still took a stand in favor of the Fairhaven building. That was the right decision for Sykesville and for the nonprofit group. And ultimately for the Springfield Road community, despite its unrelenting opposition.

Rezoning would help the organization, which has been a good neighbor, employing more than 500 people. It would be the least objectionable kind of "business" for any neighborhood and directly tied to the 400-resident center across the road. There would be little additional traffic, no noise and a design of connected cottages that would add to the neighborhood's appearance.

As an incentive, Episcopal Ministries offered land for a swimming pool and road improvements, something to benefit the entire town. It offered the town payments in lieu of taxes that, as a nonprofit, it is not required to pay.

It's always easy to say that someone else should be flexible, demonstrate reason, accept change. It's harder to do so ourselves. So we can understand the concerns of those neighbors blocking the rezoning.

A foot in the door?

While the Fairhaven headquarters design might blend in with the neighborhood, the greater fear of residents seems to be that businesses would have a foot in the door to demand future zoning changes. First the church group, then the beauty shops and the insurance agents and the accountants and so forth. Stop it now before it becomes a true menace.

"Rezoning can go on for generations, and we have to look at the long term," Councilman Michael Burgoyne said after the vote. But he pointed out that, despite resident rhetoric, "this property is not open space."

The fact is that Episcopal Ministries owns the property and can build on it, just as the protesting neighbors have done. While the organization is mum about its alternative plans, there's a real possibility of condominiums being built on the site. It's doubtful that would please the residents.

The neighbors argue that Fairhaven owns more than 300 acres in and around the South Carroll town and could build a headquarters there. But one studied site north of the retirement center is in the middle of proposed road realignments and building there could entail expensive rock excavation work.

Another explored option would be to lease one of the buildings of Springfield Hospital Center's Warfield complex, which Sykesville is acquiring from the state. But Episcopal insists on owning its headquarters location, and the Warfield plan calls for leasing only. And land that Fairhaven owns near Warfield lacks essential facilities, such as natural gas lines and sewerage.

An old dispute lurks

Lurking in the background is an old dispute between Fairhaven and Carroll County over a right of way for a northern connection to Route 32. Fairhaven earlier granted one right-of-way through its land for a county road extension, but the commissioners wanted another route. The retirement center replied by linking the county's request to the center's desire to have Third Avenue widened for access to Route 32. The impasse moved the northern bypass project off the priority list for the county.

But that should not divert attention, and action, from the immediate concern. Fairhaven deserves approval for a headquarters building that would fit into the neighborhood. It's not threatening to move elsewhere, unlike so many companies that use such leverage for zoning and tax favors. It's still an important part of the community, with or without the administrative structure.

The town ought to be able to legally exclude any further business encroachment in that area. Lawyerly agreements could limit Episcopal Ministries' use of the headquarters land to dispel possible misgivings. The town should reconsider the rezoning issue and give Fairhaven a break.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 6/06/99

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