Council might change zoning

Members want 'high-end' tenants at planned complex

December 23, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

In an effort to ensure that "high-end" corporate tenants set up shop in an office complex planned for a parcel overlooking Interstate 95 near Aberdeen Proving Ground, two County Council members are proposing changes in the project's zoning designation.

The 111-acre property on the west side of Route 543 at the I-95 exit, tentatively called James Run, is zoned for mixed-office use. The category allows office, retail, restaurant, hotel and conference center uses, but council members have proposed amendments to revise the wording to limit some uses to make the property more appealing.

"We want a service complex with its primary focus on higher-end corporate groups," said Billy Boniface, the council president.

The county has undertaken a complete reworking of its zoning code. A committee is working with county officials and planners, with assistance from a consultant, to rewrite the document that determines how land is used throughout the county. The proposed change in a specific category relating to the James Run project is separate from that effort.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, whose district includes the site, has called for landscaping throughout the property, shielded lighting, setbacks and screened trash bins, all of which would give the complex a more marketable look, she said.

"We want an integrated office park where you can drive to work, shop and dine," she said. "This legislation creates a retail piece and an avenue effect with a parking and pedestrian plan that allows ease of circulation."

Lisanti wants to limit retail tenants to shops that serve the tenants, such as communications equipment sales, dry cleaners, specialty apparel stores and restaurants. Office buildings could be up to six stories high to maximize use of the site, officials said.

"There is no better spot for a high-quality office park than here," Lisanti said. "There are few interchanges left to develop. This one has huge access and visibility. This legislation applies regulations to protect the property, buffer the surrounding neighbors, who are mostly agricultural, and preserve the [view]."

Instead of "hotel," Lisanti proposes that the wording in the code be changed to "lodging house," a designation used by AAA for multifaceted facilities with a distinguished style.

"We didn't like that broad a definition and wanted something more specific to this site," she said. "This is a definition based on AAA's international criteria."

Boniface, who runs a horse-breeding farm near Havre de Grace, said his clients who come from abroad frequently stay in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the nearest place that offers the kind of upper-end lodging they are accustomed to.

"We are setting guidelines," Boniface said. "There are things in here that will help the developer sell this project to the market."

James C. Richardson, Harford's economic development director, said the complex is just what the county needs for the work force that will be coming as the proving ground expands by about 10,000 jobs in the next few years as a result of the nationwide military base realignment and closure program known as BRAC.

Projections call for about 3 million square feet of office space in the county to meet the demands of BRAC, he said. Harford has a vacancy rate of less than 10 percent in its current office inventory, he said.

"These changes will create the image that corporations are looking for," Richardson said. "We do need it, too. We have very little office space available, and what is there is not configured the way larger users want."

Thomas Builders, a Towson-based developer, expects to break ground on James Run in the spring. The company will first complete a traffic study and might hold a second community meeting to apprise residents of any changes in the plans, officials said. Calls to a Bel Air law firm that represents the developer were not returned late last week.

"We want to focus on class-A office parks, create places for defense contractors, technology and researchers to come and to have an inventory that can be adapted quickly to their needs," Lisanti said.

Boniface said, "There is no reason we can't have an upscale facility. With BRAC, we are going to need that. This will be an asset to our tax base and an asset to our design and development."

The council will hold a public hearing on the amendments at its Jan. 15 meeting. Members are expected to approve the changes within a month of the hearing.

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