Gas station deflates hopes of transforming parcel

Officials wanted to make pedestrian-friendly area

October 19, 2003|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

For two years, Howard County officials worked with residents, property owners and businesses to craft a plan to transform a portion of the gritty, industrial U.S. 1 corridor into a pedestrian-friendly oasis with beautiful landscaping, quaint shops and possibly some sidewalk cafes.

Many hopes were focused on 5.6 acres in North Laurel vacated by three mobile-home parks in 2000.

A gas station, however, was not what the residents and planners had in mind.

Neighbors of the proposed gas station say it will torpedo the revitalization effort and are searching for ways to thwart it.

"If we can't find a way to appeal it or block it, it will deprive North Laurel of a community center," said Donna Thewes of the North Laurel Civic Association. "It will deprive us of the revitalization this area really needs."

The property was often used as an example during the revitalization study conducted of the corridor with the intention of improving the appearance of U.S. 1 and maximizing the economic potential of parcels that might be underused. Howard will execute these goals through the decennial comprehensive rezoning effort, which members of the County Council are likely to vote on early next year.

These properties are part of an almost 88-acre proposed "corridor activity center" district for North Laurel, a mixed-use zone with pedestrian-oriented features such as wide sidewalks, trees and lighting. Uses such as car dealerships, gas stations and fast-food restaurants would be discouraged.

The developers, Mel-Brook LLC and Eastern Petroleum Corp., sought permission to construct a gas station, carwash, fast-food restaurant and convenience store on about 2.3 acres of the median strip of U.S. 1. The county hearing examiner denied the petition in May, but the five-member Board of Appeals voted unanimously in favor of the project during a work session Sept. 29.

"We completely satisfied the criteria," said lawyer David A. Carney, who represents the developers.

He said he believes that Mel-Brook could obtain the necessary permits and approvals to begin construction within four months, before the County Council votes on comprehensive rezoning. But approval of the proposal will not derail the corridor's evolution, county officials said.

"As long as the other property owners in the area are willing to use it, I think it should still have some good benefits," said Councilman Guy Guzzone, a Democrat who represents the area.

"I can't get discouraged for the whole project because of one property, even if it is significant," he added.

Marsha McLaughlin, the county planning director, agreed.

"I think that the gas station clearly is not what we would have preferred to see," she said. However, "it's really the question of how it's designed."

She also pointed out that the station and the proposed businesses do not take up the entire median strip. The future of the remainder of the 5.6 acres has not been determined.

But Thewes is trying to "assess what we can do about that vote."

"We're going to see the back of the building, with a fence around it," she said. "And that's supposed to be community-friendly?"

Carney says he does not believe that the gas station eliminates revitalization possibilities on U.S. 1. Rather, he says, he thinks it marries the corridor's function with improved streetscapes and designs.

"You're never going to get rid of the traffic on Route 1," Carney said. "It's always going to have trucks."

But uses such as gas stations can be attractive, he said, with the right landscaping and other features. In early stages, the project was dubbed an "oasis" based on its appearance.

"Everything that improves the ambiance with new facilities, refurbished facilities is what will achieve the appearance goals of Route 1," Carney said.

Others along the corridor are embracing the "community activity center" revitalization concept.

Several of the owners of U.S. 1 property have sought corridor activity center zoning, such as the former Luskin's Furniture Store, now the U.S. 1 Flea Market, said Steven M. Johns, a county planner.

Several brokers see the land in the district, which allows 25 residential units an acre, as more valuable, he said.

"The intent of the task force and planning department was to use the higher density as a carrot to get some of those districts to form and clean up some of those areas that had some of the most automobile uses," he said.

Mark S. Weinman of the Pikesville-based Morris Weinman Co., which owns the Luskin property, declined to comment.

Before the zoning changes were proposed, Al Nicotra, president of Action Investment Properties Inc., said he had several buyers considering purchasing about half of his 3 acres on the west side of U.S. 1, just north of the median split.

The buyers, who wanted to build a used-car lot and auto repair center, backed off because they feared they could not gain the necessary approvals before the new zoning would take effect, Nicotra said.

"The capacity to build up to a five-story building would be a better use for that property anyway," he said.

The site includes a right of way for a road. Putting in the road would allow a developer to build two attractive buildings with retail, office and apartment space on each corner, Nicotra said, even if the owners of other properties fronting on U.S. 1 don't refurbish their facilities immediately.

"We'll be able to set up the ambiance," he said. "It can stand alone and be attractive."

Gary J. Arthur, director of county's Department of Recreation and Parks, said the right of way could provide access to the future North Laurel Park behind Laurel Woods Elementary School. The park would be a nice feature for the property's residents, Nicotra said.

He said he is working with two or three developers to market the property in this district.

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