Councilman's bills seek to spur Oella Mill plans

Apartment project raises parking, zoning concerns

November 24, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Responding to a Circuit Court ruling that halted plans to convert the historic Oella Mill into 175 luxury apartments, a Baltimore County councilman is preparing legislation that could put the project back on track, a move that has sparked fierce opposition from some residents in the community.

Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, said he believes that the mill, which provides cheap studio space for artists and stalls for antiques markets, will be converted eventually. Apartments would have less impact than restaurants or commercial establishments, which would be permitted without variances under zoning rules, he added.

But opponents, who won a court ruling this summer after losses in front of the county's zoning commissioner and Board of Appeals, have expressed outrage that the councilman would change the law to sidestep a judge's ruling.

At a recent council work session and meeting, they argued that converting the 195-year-old mill would rob the community of its historical centerpiece and would clog its twisting, narrow roads with hundreds more cars.

"You can rewrite the laws, you can bend them, but it's not going to change the structure of Oella," said resident Pam DeAngelis. "It's already overcrowded. It's already dangerous."

The $26 million renovation project was proposed by Forest City Residential Group of Cleveland, which has said apartments would rent for as much as $3,000 a month.

Moxley introduced two bills this month. The first would allow tenants in an apartment to stack their cars one in front of another to reduce the amount of required parking.

The second would exempt historic structures being redeveloped for residences from the county's recreational open space requirements and clarify when residential transition zones, which buffer residences from other uses, are required.

He pulled both of them from the agenda just before a work session two weeks ago but said he plans to reintroduce them, with amendments, next month or in January.

Earlier rulings by the zoning commissioner and Board of Appeals had held that county parking and recreation requirements did not apply to the Oella project because it involves the conversion of an existing structure, not new construction. They also held that the transition area requirement wasn't needed because the mill is not entirely in a residential zone.

But Circuit Judge Patrick Cavanaugh ruled this summer that those distinctions are not rooted in county law. Moxley's bills, if passed, would cover most of his objections.

Permits and Development Management Director Timothy Kotroco said he welcomes the proposed change on the transition zones as a way to make the law more accurately reflect longstanding interpretations and practices.

Moxley asserted that without his proposed changes for parking rules and open space requirements, redeveloping historic structures as residences would often be impossible.

When a building is redeveloped, its footprint can usually be changed to accommodate open space and parking requirements, but not so with historical structures, Moxley said.

"I don't know how we could go about it otherwise," he said.

The way to go about it, said resident Lynette Burns, is to build fewer units.

Burns said that applying open-space and parking requirements to the Oella Mill wouldn't necessarily prohibit development, but it would whittle down the number of possible units, reducing traffic congestion.

"It's a very narrow road that is at times one lane, where the school bus has to yield to oncoming traffic," Burns said, referring to Oella Avenue, site of the mill.

"There are safety issues on that road now that would only be compounded if we were to add 200-plus cars to Oella Avenue," she said.

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