Arundel site is land of delayed opportunity

Property owner seeks end to zoning saga that's kept parcel languishing

March 27, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

When Les Belcher talks about the 54 acres he owns on Bestgate Road near Annapolis - land he hopes to sell for millions of dollars - he sounds weary.

As landowner, Belcher knows first-hand the strange saga of the property, a prime piece of undeveloped real estate near Westfield Shoppingtown that should have sold for a tidy sum about a decade ago.

Instead, the property has languished for want of commercial zoning and become mired in political controversy. Whispers of sweetheart deals between a team of prospective developers and county officials resulted in an FBI probe. A costly court battle and a protracted rezoning have further tested Belcher's patience.

While he's hopeful that the Maryland Court of Appeals could grant him the commercial zoning he has long sought for the front section of the Bestgate site, Belcher said he will sell the land to Erwin L. Greenberg & Associates of Baltimore and Robert and Michael DeStefano of Sturbridge Homes of Annapolis regardless.

"All I want to do is have that property put through the planning process like any other property," Belcher said.

Developers Greenberg and Sturbridge - which worked together to build the Village at Waugh Chapel in Odenton - also are awaiting the court decision. They're lobbying Anne Arundel County Council members, who could grant the commercial zoning change independent of a court decision.

While support is growing for the Village at Bestgate plan, which includes 120,000 square feet of retail space, 62,000 square feet of office space and 224 condominiums, County Executive Janet S. Owens has said she won't support the developers' mixed-use zoning request that would allow shops, offices and residential use.

County Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, a Democrat from Annapolis whose opposition to commercial development at the Bestgate property helped her win the 1998 election, also is adamant that it remain exclusively residential.

She has argued that it would be wrong to allow Greenberg and Sturbridge to build shops, offices and housing so close to Parole, an area that has been designated for rebirth as a hub of retail, residential and office activity for more than a decade.

"Either we concentrate growth at the Parole center or we have more sprawl," Samorajczyk said.

Developers also have been promoting the village concept to area residents - and winning converts.

"We have a decent groundswell of support," said Michael DeStefano, president of Sturbridge Homes.

John S. Pantelides, senior vice president with Greenberg & Associates, has been meeting with residents for the past three months. At most of those gatherings, Pantelides has provided snacks and beverages. Last month, he paid for 70 residents to dine at a local Italian restaurant.

"The only way I can win this is if I can get people to come out and say, `We want mixed-use,' " said Pantelides, who for his next promotional event plans to set out a tent, refreshments and colorful concept plans at the Bestgate site. "I want to get people out there so they can walk the grounds," he said.

Pantelides won over members of Fowler United Methodist Church this year. After his pitch, Pantelides donated $1,500 toward the church's mission work in Jamaica. Recently, church elders wrote a letter to Owens endorsing the shopping center concept.

"We prayed about it and thought about it and decided that we are in favor of a mix of commercial and residential uses," said Hosea Hodges, pastor of the church next to Belcher's Bestgate property. "One of the things that got our attention was the possibility of 500 new jobs." He said the cash contribution didn't sway church elders.

Opponents complained when they learned that the congregation and others, including residents of two condominium complexes built by the DeStefanos, had thrown their support behind the village concept, especially after they had received free food and a cash donation.

"It's not something I would do," said Chris Swatta, a Severn Forest resident and member of the Parole Growth Management Interim Committee, which has been working for months to revise a redevelopment plan for Parole Plaza. "I wouldn't be able to sleep at night."

Swatta and other residents, including members of the Generals Highway Council of Civic Associations, an umbrella group that represents two dozen neighborhoods, have been fighting commercial development at the Bestgate site for years. They believe that developers should build houses on the site and that the county should focus commercial development in the Parole area.

"We are totally against the [commercial] project," said Don Yeskey, president of the Generals Highway Council, which has spent $30,000 on attorney and court fees - $10,000 of which was donated by Robert DeStefano several years ago when a competing developer wanted to build shops and apartments at the site.

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