Developer gets OK to turn historic Oella Mill into luxury apartments

Zoning official rejects opponents' concerns about traffic, garage, open space

July 11, 2002|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County zoning commissioner has approved plans by a Cleveland developer to transform the historic Oella Mill into 175 upscale apartments.

In a 26-page opinion, Lawrence E. Schmidt said that opponents' concerns about things such as parking, traffic congestion and the number of units to be created were unfounded. The ruling opens the way for renovation of the 193-year-old building, now home to an eclectic mix of art and antiques dealers, unless neighbors appeal to the county's Board of Special Appeals. No decision on an appeal has been made.

"We're obviously pleased with the ruling. But we still have hoops to jump through," said David J. Levey, executive vice president of Forest City Residential Group, the developer, referring to possible challenges to Schmidt's decision.

Some residents of the quaint former mill town in western Baltimore County were disappointed with the decision.

"I'm not OK with this," said Henry Berger, who opposed the project. "But if nobody appeals, I hope everyone is happy with what they're getting."

Though some shop owners have left, merchants in the mill yesterday said they're banking on a lengthy appeals process.

"It sounds like it's going to be quite awhile before the developers can do anything," said Janine Clagg, who opened her antiques shop, No. 5, a month ago. "We know they won't kick us out right away."

Opponents challenged the project on several fronts, none of which swayed Schmidt, who issued his ruling late Monday.

Neighbors contended that the first floor of the building must be used for a commercial purpose, instead of parking, as Forest City proposes. County law permits the parking, Schmidt ruled.

Neighbors pointed to a county law requiring that 650 square feet of open space be provided for each dwelling. But because the project calls for redevelopment of the site, Schmidt said, the developers didn't have to meet that standard.

Opponents also argued that the project exceeded county density rules. Under those rules, 20 dwellings would be permitted. But Schmidt ruled that the property is in a zone without density restrictions.

Traffic generated by the apartments - which will rent for $1,400 to $3,000 a month - would overwhelm local roads, residents complained. Schmidt ruled that if the county determines there is a safety problem, it can make road improvements.

Schmidt did take note of opponents' argument that the project should not be allowed because the site is on a flood plain. While Schmidt said that would not be enough to scrap the renovations, he pointed out that Baltimore County and Federal Emergency Management Agency maps differed on whether the building is on such a plain. The matter must be resolved before permits can be issued, he ruled.

"I'm pretty amazed that of all the topics we brought up the zoning commissioner did not find one thing to rule in our favor," said Bill Knapp, a mill artist and member of Concerned Citizens For Oella.

The seven-story brick building sits on 5.73 acres and dates to 1809. It is listed in the Maryland Historic Trust inventory.

Forest City manages properties in 17 states and specializes in renovating historic buildings. It has completed similar restorations in Richmond, Va., Philadelphia and Washington.

Company officials estimate that the Oella Mill conversion will cost about $26 million. About $6 million will be recouped through federal tax credits because of the historic nature of the building.

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