Residents criticize rezoning proposal on U.S. 1

Destruction of woods feared

owners would see 2nd change in 2 years


February 21, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

For decades, Jim Roberts and his father, Edward, have lived and operated a business on U.S. 1 in Elkridge amid a dusty industrial cacophony of trucks, trailers and steel - the kind of place Howard County officials hope eventually will be redeveloped.

But a late proposal to rezone part of the Robertses' 32 acres in the 6700 block of Washington Blvd. from residential to office and commercial uses - what would be the second rezoning in two years - has upset both the land's owners and residents who live in the nearby community of Harwood Park.

Unlike 41 other rezoning proposals the County Council is considering as part of a second phase of the countywide comprehensive rezoning enacted last year, these changes, proposed Feb. 7 by Ellicott City Republican Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, were not discussed or voted on by the county planning board.

Merdon said he just wanted improvement of the site, which many consider an eyesore. The Robertses said they feel the county government is up to no good.

"They're trying to put us out of business," said Edward Roberts, 89, a World War II veteran who spends his retirement sitting in his 58-year-old son's cluttered office, housed in an old blue trailer.

The Robertses use the land closest to the highway for their business. They store equipment and steel, and rent land to a fence company - the kind of U.S. 1 business considered a throwback to an era when the highway was a haven for fading, often unattractive uses not welcome in more expensive sections.

But with county land prices skyrocketing, Elkridge is among the fastest-growing areas, and county officials think upscale redevelopment is inevitable.

Since last year's rezoning changed a portion of the Roberts land closest to the highway from industrial to commercial, their property tax assessment has nearly doubled. The Robertses are also facing up to $15,000 in fines for alleged zoning violations for storing vehicles - a practice they said was not illegal under the old zoning.

Neighbors' concerns

Meanwhile, residents of nearby Harwood Park worry that office buildings could replace the heavily wooded rear portion of the land closest to their homes.

"I'd love for it to stay the way it is now," said Priscilla Berry, whose large Woodburn Avenue home backs to those trees at the rear of the Roberts property.

Betsy McMillion, president of the Harwood Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, said that 42 uses are allowed under the Planned Office Research zone proposed by Merdon for part of the land. They range from adult live entertainment to a convent, though Merdon said senior housing was most likely.

But with 300 new homes planned for a site just south of the Roberts land, residents fear more congestion if the Robertses sell and a shopping center or office complex is built.

McMillion said she felt blindsided by Merdon's proposal.

"This whole zoning stuff is like Greek to us. We don't understand it," she said, complaining that she had to drop everything else to organize and inform her community in time for a council public hearing tomorrow night. The council is to vote on the rezoning proposals on March 7.

Zoning on U.S. 1

Merdon, the Harwood residents and the Robertses agree that the U.S. 1 property should be more attractive - part of an overall effort to change the old commercial corridor's image as a home for motels, junkyards and industrial businesses like the Robertses'.

That's why the council rezoned hundreds of acres of land along U.S. 1 from Elkridge to Laurel last year, and Merdon said the Roberts property is of prime interest in his district.

"The Robertses' property is one poster child of what we don't want U.S. 1 to be," Merdon said. "We want to make some improvements along Route 1, and this would be a key start."

Merdon said he met twice with Jim Roberts and introduced the amendment to spur discussion.

"I'm not even sure I'm going to support it," he said, adding that he was just trying to find a proper zone to create a buffer between new development sure to eventually come to the Roberts land, and the residential area of Harwood Park.

The Robertses

"I just want to do something that works," Merdon said, adding that he introduced his proposal for the land partly to nudge the Robertses to do something more attractive with their land.

The councilman said he would like to find another piece of industrial land where the Robertses could move their home and business, but probably would be fine leaving some residential zoning on the rear part of the land.

But Jim Roberts, a plain-spoken Vietnam vet, said the $2.5 million he's been offered by developers for his land wouldn't be enough to replace his home and his business without driving him into debt.

Edward Roberts also sees the changes as a threat. "They want everything to be like Columbia up there. They don't want anything for the little guy," he said.

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