Neighbors differ over the future of a busy road

Residents on Montgomery at odds with those near it

Commercial vs. residential issue

Rezoning is expected to be contentious in 2003

Ellicott City

February 26, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Battle lines are being drawn over the future of a busy Ellicott City road, dividing the people who live on the stretch from everyone who lives near it.

Landowners across from Long Gate shopping center on Montgomery Road -- including some who live in houses there and are sick of the noise, trash and traffic the center brought -- want commercial zoning instead of residential. Residents who live around them hate the idea of any more businesses in the congested area.

The roughly 39 acres in question, between Long Gate Parkway and Old Columbia Pike, also includes a church and Howard County's only YMCA.

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican of Ellicott City who met with about two dozen residents from nearby subdivisions last night to discuss rezoning, said he would like to pull all the parties together to work out a plan -- in particular because he wants to see an elementary school built in that stretch.

This throws a new idea into the mix after five years of fights over commercial proposals on the road, but getting everyone to agree won't be easy.

After five years, most people know what they want, and there is little common ground.

"No retail, no retail," said David Catania, who lives in the nearby Wheatfield neighbor hood and is treasurer of the Montgomery Road Citizens for Responsible Growth. "It is still viable as residential because we had two developers for planned senior communities make inquiries about that land."

The handful of folks who live on that section of Montgomery Road think it is not good for any thing but commercial development, and they believe anyone opining that the area is suited for residences should try staying in their homes for a while.

Since it was built in the 1990s, Long Gate Center has brought traffic snarls that make it difficult for them to get in and out of their driveways, dangerous for them to mow their lawns and fatal for their mailboxes, they say.

"At one time, it was a beautiful setting," said Ralph S. Bathgate, 64, who moved to Montgomery Road when he was 10 and lives in a house literally a stone's throw from the byway. "Now it's completely changed. I really should get away from here. As I get older, I'm sure it's going to get worse."

Bill Walther, an Ellicott City resident whose mother lived on Montgomery Road until shortly before she died last year, said: "It's just no place to live."

The face-off could easily be the most contentious issue during comprehensive rezoning, the once-a-decade process of re-envisioning Howard County development possibilities.

County Council members expect to vote on new zones at the end of the year.

Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, and Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a Republican who represents the west county, also talked with residents last night, pointing out that commercial development is important to Howard's long-term tax base -- though they said that does not necessarily mean it has to go on Montgomery Road.

Need for a school

Merdon told residents that he has talked to the YMCA about the need for 15 acres for an elementary school and also has suggested that the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, which owns 28 acres behind the properties proposed for rezoning, sell a chunk of its land.

"The No. 1 need in my mind by far is to get the new school built," Merdon said. "Everything else is secondary."

VFW members are considering the idea. But meanwhile, their board of directors voted to oppose commercial rezoning along the road, said Catania, the post adjutant.

"There would be more crime and more traffic and more noise and more lighting," he said.

County planners have recommended that land along nearly a half-mile of Montgomery Road be rezoned from R-20 (about two homes an acre) to B-1 (local business), B-2 (general business) and POR (planned office research).

Those zones would allow a variety of commercial developments, though no proposals have been proffered.

`Premature'

J. Chris Pippen, a developer who lives on Montgomery Road and is working with some of the property owners, said it is "premature to have any specific plans."

Walther could imagine businesses along the lines of a dental office or a nursery, and Bathgate envisions a small shopping center.

YMCA leaders say they have no plans. They want flexibility as they figure out how to expand to meet the demands of a fast-growing membership, said Lyndon Murray, the executive director.

In 2001, the YMCA agreed to sell part of the property to Pippen to help finance a new building, but that rezoning project fell through.

Keith Philipp, chairman of board of trustees of Bethel Baptist Church, said the congregation is seeking POR zoning so that members can someday build a gymnasium for the youth as a matter of right instead of asking for "conditional use" permission.

"We're not going to put a Burger King up on our property, or a gas station," he promised. "Any development on the property will be strictly church-related."

Inevitable rezoning

The homeowners on that stretch of road believe that commercial rezoning is inevitable eventually.

Anyone who would buy property now would be an investor looking for a bargain, not a family looking for a home, Bathgate said.

He said he does not want to sell on the cheap after sticking it out this long.

"We're between a rock and a hard place," Bathgate said.

Wendy Moomaw, a member of the Montgomery Road Citizens for Responsible Growth, said she hopes that everyone comes together on a task force to hash out the issues. But she figures that could take months.

"There's a lot of animosity to get over, unfortunately," she said.

The Montgomery Road Citizens for Responsible Growth is holding a meeting at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Ellicott Mills Elementary School to discuss rezoning proposals along the corridor.

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