With an eye toward potential customers from expanding federal agencies nearby, developers proposing a mixed-use community near the Dorsey MARC train station in Elkridge got final approval for their plan from a split Howard County Zoning Board.
The board voted 3-2 to approve a specific plan for Oxford Square, the proposed residential/commercial project on 122 acres across Route 100 from the train station. The site is vacant land once expected to hold a Coca-Cola bottling plant.
"It's been a long process, but I believe it's the best zoning, and I hope to prove that over the next 15 years," said David P. Scheffenacker Jr., president of Preston Partners, the developer. The agreement calls for the maximum number of residential units to drop from 1,400 to 954, for the county to get a free 20-acre school site acceptable to the school board, plus $4 million in cash and $1.5 million in infrastructure work, and transportation to the train station. It also guarantees a minimum amount of commercial versus residential space built in each of the project's three stages to guarantee the county a positive flow of revenue. Also included is a fee of $300 per home to the county to help pay for wastewater and nutrient treatment.
Overall, the plan includes 630,000 square feet of office and retail space, though that could change with market conditions. Construction would likely not begin for several years.
County planning director Marsha McLaughlin praised the board's action.
"There aren't many sites close enough to a MARC station to be considered. It's very positive," she said, since MARC train use will likely grow despite recent operating problems. Concern about the loss of industrially zoned land should be tempered, she said, by the knowledge that there are many industrial sites along the U.S. 1 corridor that can be redeveloped over time.
There are also proposals pending for much smaller but similar projects for the parking lots at the Savage and Laurel train stations in Howard. McLaughlin said the need is growing for "compact, walkable" places near train stations where people can live, work or both and use trains instead of private vehicles. The influx of federal jobs in the Fort Meade area will help feed that trend, county officials believe.
Cathy Hudson, an Elkridge resident who opposed the rezoning apart from Howard's once-per-decade comprehensive rezoning, said that she is worried by the outcome because it could signal to other landowners along the U.S. 1 corridor that rezoning from industrial to residential is achievable.
"It sets a tone for the next comprehensive rezoning," she said. She and others in Elkridge feel the area is being overwhelmed with residential development that will further clog roads and schools, and she pointed out that the first 477 homes can be built under the approved plan before any commercial construction is required.
Enrollment in area middle and elementary schools is projected to result in overcrowding by 2013 and trigger development delays under the county's growth-control laws.
The effect of Scheffenacker's agreement to provide the school site and financial support could be lessened, Hudson said, by new students whose families move into the planned apartments. County school officials have said they hope to build an elementary school in the area by 2013 and a middle school by 2015, though as yet they have no site for either.
Scheffenacker spent two hours before the board Tuesday going over a 10-point list of specific promises and features for the project, while leaving enough flexibility to maneuver if the economy or demands of customers change.
"I'm really, really excited about this because I really believe it will be a great success," Scheffenacker told the board, adding later that his family-owned company plans to be involved with Oxford Square for at least 15 years.
The final zoning board vote mirrored two earlier ones approving a zoning change from industrial to Transit Oriented Development, with Democrat Courtney Watson and Republican Greg Fox opposing the project, while Democrats Jen Terrasa, Mary Kay Sigaty and Calvin Ball supported it.
Fox had pushed for a guarantee of more commercial development earlier because that produces more tax revenues at less cost to the county. He was voted down out of fear that too high a standard might cripple the development financially.
"I'm very concerned we do not have the level of commercial commitment," he said.
"I don't share Mr. Fox's pessimism," said Sigaty, who earlier said she liked the idea of having enough residential units "to create a neighborhood feel" at Oxford Square. Watson followed Fox's lead. Terrasa said the land is "a vacant piece of property that doesn't have any jobs. We're creating jobs and vibrancy."
Approved was a standard that requires a minimum of 95,400 square feet of commercial space to be built before more than 50 percent of the 954 residential units are finished. At least 41,600 more square feet of commercial space would have to be built in the second phase, along with up to 206 residential units, with at least 54,200 square feet more of commercial in the third, final phase, along with 271 more apartments.
But the developers made it clear that those are just minimums, and if the expansion of federal defense agencies and contractors around Fort Meade — or the even larger cyber-security program at the National Security Agency in the same area — needs offices, they are ready to respond.
"If the big old cyber-security command comes along and wants the whole site, it could be all commercial," said William E. Erskine, Preston's local zoning lawyer.
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