Commercial proposal for U.S. 1 stirs dissent

Gas station, hotel, offices aren't suited to renewal plans for road, critics say

January 14, 2003|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Howard County officials and neighborhood residents are questioning whether a proposed hotel and gas station complex on the median strip of U.S. 1 in North Laurel fits with revitalization plans for the U.S. 1 corridor.

The developers, Mel-Brook LLC and Eastern Petroleum Corp., submitted a petition last week to the county Department of Planning and Zoning seeking permission to build a gasoline and diesel fuel station with an associated carwash and convenience store on three lots.

Although a date has not been set, the county hearing examiner will evaluate the petition based on the project's harmony with the Howard County General Plan and the impact on neighboring properties.

The proposed complex, with North Laurel Road as its southern boundary, also would include two one-story, 7,500- square-foot office buildings and a 70-room hotel with a family restaurant. Those uses are permitted under current zoning.

"What [the developer] is trying to present is exactly what we're trying to stop on Route 1," said Donna Thewes, treasurer of the North Laurel Civic Association. "The only thing [the developer] could have proposed that would have been worse was a used-car lot."

"What we're really looking for in that lower part of North Laurel is a mix of uses - retail and office," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county planning director.

Thewes attended a pre-submission meeting last month and was disappointed by the developers' proposal.

"It could bring so many wonderful possibilities to Route 1, especially with the buying of the track," she said, referring to the recent purchase of the Laurel Park racetrack by a national racing organization that hopes to install slot machines at the track.

The Mel-Brook LLC-Eastern Petroleum plan is subject to review under a relatively new clause in the zoning code, which states that developers hoping to build gas stations must prove they will not adversely affect the general welfare or logical development of the area, or have a blighting effect because of the proliferation of gas stations.

Rutter said the proposal again raised the issue of how many gas stations are too many for U.S. 1. "The number can have a blighting influence" which would have to be evaluated with conditional use, he said.

David A. Carney, attorney for the developers, disagreed with that assessment.

"Believe it or not, gas stations ... can be very attractive," he said.

Carney said the developers took streetscape concerns into account when designing the complex, nicknamed "oasis."

The two office buildings would be oriented to front on U.S. 1, he said, and the convenience store would be landscaped to have a "Main Street" appearance for passing motorists. Parking would be behind the buildings.

In their petition, the developers state that the nearest gas station is a 7-Eleven at Maier Road, the only one in the stretch from the Prince George's County line to Gorman Road.

"We've been trying to get away from the auto and truck uses that seem to dominate the corridor," said Steve Johns, a planner in the Division of Environmental and Community Planning. "We recognize that there is a market for those uses. We just like to cluster them at major intersections."

Johns noted the crossroads of Route 175 and U.S. 1, with a number of service stations. Under U.S. 1 revitalization plans, that intersection would remain intact because it serves a need for the corridor and the nearby Interstate 95 exit.

Thewes said she has not met anyone in her area who favors the plan and believes no one from her North Laurel community will purchase gas at the station. None of her neighbors buy gas in Howard County, she said.

"Not one can compare to the price I can get from going a half-mile down the road" into Laurel, Thewes said. "It's worth the drive. You can save more than 10 cents a gallon."

The possibility of slots at Laurel Park and the county's comprehensive rezoning, scheduled to begin this year, "could potentially change things dramatically for that section," said County Councilman Guy Guzzone.

He said he believes those factors make it worth the developers' while to wait a few more months before deciding what to propose for the site.

"Aside from the fact that I'm not excited about another gas station, the broader concept is when we go the slots issue and comprehensive rezoning we may change various zoning categories down in that area," Guzzone said.

But Carney noted: "Based on what the regulations are, the value as a gas service station is going to have greater value than normal commercial use. That's just the economics of commercial real estate."

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