Development opponents rue 11-year-old decision

'93 zoning change opened the door to possibility of 749 homes in Cherry Hill

October 24, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

CHERRY HILL -- Former Cecil County Commissioner Ed Cole freely admits that he and his colleagues at the time made a big mistake 11 years ago when they voted to change the zoning of a peach orchard in this rural community outside of Elkton from agricultural to multifamily residential.

That zoning change planted the seed for one of the largest and most contentious residential development projects in the county's history. A New Jersey company wants to put 749 homes on the 146-acre site. An additional 140,000 square feet of commercial development is proposed for an adjacent 31 acres.

But with the Cecil County Planning Commission's 3-2 vote last week giving conditional approval to the project, Cole -- who left office in 1994 -- and others troubled by the plan are left to consider how they can stop it.

Opponents' options range from appealing the Planning Commission's decision to lobbying the county commissioners to block water and sewer service.

"That's too many houses," said County Commissioner Phyllis Kilby, who took office years after the zoning change was approved. "That's like flopping a village down in the middle of rural countryside."

Members of the county's Planning Commission voted Monday to approve the project with a long list of conditions that must be met first.

Planning Commission Chairman Joshua D. Brown cast the tie-breaking vote. In explanation, Brown said zoning laws allow for such development. "In that zone, it seems like reasonable density," he said. "But I agree with many of the citizens who argue that is not a reasonable zone for that area."

He called the previous decision by the county commissioners "an error in judgment."

Cole could not attend Monday's nearly five-hour Planning Commission hearing on the Cherry Hill project, but he had a resident read his letter reiterating his views that the zoning never should have been changed in 1993 to allow a project of this size.

Owen Thorne, one of 22 residents to speak against the project, called it "a mega-development" that would create a town second in the county only to Elkton in population.

Other residents argued that the development would overwhelm the county's emergency services, including police and fire protection. They said it would strain public schools and roads, threaten wildlife and affect the environment.

"This project doesn't fit in this area," said Thorne, chairman of the Appleton Regional Community Alliance, a community group organized to fight what it considers bad development.

Thorne was not discouraged by the Planning Commission's vote. "We have just begun the fight," he said two days after the hearing. "That was just our first opportunity to speak out against this project."

"Yes, we are going to continue the fight," said Lindsie Carter, chairwoman of Cherry Hill Alliance for Responsible Growth and Expansion, a community organization formed to present a united front against the project.

She said CHARGE is considering an appeal of the Planning Commission's decision and also is considering a lawsuit challenging the county commissioners' decision to rezone the property 11 years ago.

During the hearing Monday, residents showed more suspicion than comfort over the developer's latest move to appease their concerns.

Jay Young, a lawyer with the Bel Air firm Brown, Brown & Brown, P.A., testified that the developer, Windsor Development Co. of Freehold, N.J., said that 100 percent of the housing development would be restricted by age. The homes would be free of children, and therefore would not burden schools.

Young said the company was prepared to write that into the property covenant with language that could not be changed without the approval of the county commissioners.

David Meiskin, a managing member of Windsor Development, pointed out that the company had significantly reduced the size of the project, from 978 units to 749. "Two hundred and twenty-nine homes have been dropped," he said.

He said the development, which will be made up of single-family homes, townhouses, twin houses and condominiums, would give the county tax base a net gain of $2.3 million when construction is completed in eight years.

Despite the conditional blessing of the Planning Commission, there are serious doubts that the first home will ever be built on the former Milburn Orchard site.

Anthony J. DiGiacomo of the county's Office of Planning and Zoning said the 22 conditions imposed on the project by the planning board represent a "major impediment." He said most projects have 10 or 12 conditions attached to plat approval.

DiGiacomo said the developer would be required to conduct a traffic impact study, do an environment impact study and make road improvements. But its major obstacle will be getting water and sewage service to the property. That would require the county commissioners to amend the county's Master Water and Sewer Plan.

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