Turf Valley store issue upsets some

4-hour hearing packed, heated on proposal for larger grocery

October 23, 2008|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

The divide over a developer's desire to alter plans for a retail district in upscale Turf Valley came into sharp focus during an often vehement debate over the proposal.

More than 120 people packed a County Council meeting room Monday for a hearing on a proposed zoning change that would allow a larger grocery store in the planned community just west of Ellicott City.

The proposal would raise the permissible size of food stores in "planned golf course communities" such as Turf Valley from 18,000 to 55,000 square feet.

More than 50 citizens took to the microphone over the course of four hours, roughly half to support the measure, half to oppose it or to raise objections.

At times, the testimony grew heated.

"I haven't seen a [meeting] like this since [high school] redistricting," quipped Courtney Watson, chairwoman of the council.

Mangione Family Enterprises owns the 809-acre Turf Valley, which includes golf courses and a mix of more than 100 townhouses and single-family homes. Mangione also has permission to add more than 400,000 square feet of retail space and has hired Greenberg-Gibbons Commercial, an Annapolis-based retail shopping center specialist, to develop such a center.

The proposal, supporters point out, would not increase the amount of retail space allowed, but rather upgrade the permissible size of any grocery store within it.

After all, they say, the 18,000-square-foot limit, established during comprehensive zoning in 1993, would today be typical not for a full-service grocery store such as a Safeway, but for a specialty store such as a Trader Joe's.

Greenberg-Gibbons representatives told the council that their market research says a store that small can't support a shopping center of the size envisioned for Town Square at Turf Valley, the development it has designed for the location.

Richard Snader, a resident of the Legends, a townhouse neighborhood in the community, concurred. Stores that small, he said, only anchor "strip malls" today, or "the village centers you see in Columbia," a concept he said has proved a failure.

Helen Carey, also a resident of the Legends, supported the measure, which she said would attract a "quality food store." She praised the company's design, which would surround any anchor store with multiple smaller storefronts, evoking the feel of an old-fashioned town square, and offer pedestrian-friendly walkways as well as restaurants with outdoor seating.

But several speakers argued that even though a larger grocery store might benefit Turf Valley residents, the plan lacked sufficient study by county planners on its potential traffic impact.

Sid Roros of Oekos Management Corp., which owns the nearby Waverly Woods Shopping Center, said his company invested millions in that enterprise on the assumption that stores in Turf Valley would not exceed 18,000 square feet.

He learned of the petition only a week before, he said, arguing that "a change this significant should go through the comprehensive rezoning process, not [be presented] as a text amendment."

Several residents who live along Turf Valley Road in a neighborhood adjacent to Mangione's development said they had been excluded from discussions of the petition and learned of it during the past two weeks. Stuart Kohn of Scaggsville, who served on a planning and zoning task force for County Executive Ken Ulman's transition team in 2006, said zoning procedures are "broken," in part because the council too often "rubber stamps" developers' petitions without adequate public input.

Greenberg-Gibbons, he said, was using a text-amendment approach, not waiting for the next comprehensive rezoning process in 2013, because that way, they "don't have to post signs about what they're doing."

"That's just wrong," Kohn said, his voice rising. While the developers have followed the letter of the law, he said, "this kind of thing erodes the public's trust in government."

Brian Gibbons, co-owner of Greenberg-Gibbons, pledged more outreach to residents of nearby neighborhoods as plans proceed.

"We'll work with the community until they're satisfied," Gibbons said. "We're happy to meet with additional groups."

Council members insisted that regulations are being followed. "But that doesn't mean the process can't be questioned," Watson said.

A vote on the measure could come as early as Nov. 4.

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