New zoning to allow apartments at Normandy Center

Zoning board approves changes to enable redevelopment of Howard's oldest shopping center

March 31, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

New zoning approved Wednesday night for Howard County's oldest shopping center would allow a mixture of apartments, offices and stores to replace the partly empty Normandy Center on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City.

Over neighborhood objections, the county zoning board, composed of the five County Council members, unanimously approved a zoning change that will allow the dense development. Before the panel could issue that approval, members had to rule that the County Council had erred by denying "traditional neighborhood zoning" for the property during comprehensive rezoning in 2004.

The neighborhood zone is designed to allow a more urban-style redevelopment that county planners feel will reinvigorate struggling older shopping areas. But the law requires that a "mistake" be found before zoning can be changed. Republican Greg Fox disagreed with the four Democrats on the board, arguing that the developer's arguments were weak and not persuasive. He was the lone "no" vote in the 4-1 decision.

Normandy's 24.4 acres was originally part of the 115-acre Moxley family farm that dates to 1893, family members have said. They developed this portion as Howard's first modern shopping center a half-century ago, and the family has told the zoning board it intends to redevelop Normandy and remain as owners and operators.

James R. "Rob" Moxley spoke for his family after the hearing. "We're very pleased that they are willing to provide an opportunity for a property owner to try TNC and see how it would work," he said.

But several residents of the area who also attended the 40-minute discussion in the George Howard building said they were upset, and one said she plans to appeal the decision to Howard County Circuit Court. They want the center's fate decided during the next round of comprehensive rezoning in about three years. The Moxleys argued they cannot wait that long because the center is one-third empty now and without an anchor supermarket.

"Absolutely," there will be a court challenge, said Lisa Markovitz,. She and two other residents said they are worried that up to 400 apartments are allowed on the site, although the Moxleys have said they plan to build only 200 units. At previous hearings, witnesses have said they fear transients, crime, loitering and congestion they associate with apartments.

"I'm disappointed," said Kirsten Saxe, another resident. "I thought they shared a lot of our concerns." Susan Rura, a third resident, called the decision "a junk shot," like the failed attempt last spring to cap the leaking BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico with trash. "The county wants to allow the new zone as an experiment when they aren't sure it works," she said, agreeing with Fox's argument.

The board members discussed six separate arguments for mistake made by William Erskine, the Moxley's attorney, but the majority agreed that since the 2004 county council thought the center was prosperous and would remain that way, the later closing of the Safeway grocery store and the Moxley's inability to attract a new tenant amounted to definition of a mistake. That earlier council refused to apply the TNC zone to Normandy at the time.

Some arguments were more persuasive than others, members said, but Councilwoman Jen Terrasa summed up the general feeling of the majority.

"It's the cumulative effect of all these things," she said about Erskine's arguments. Calvin Ball and Mary Kay Sigaty agreed. Board chairwoman Courtney Watson also agreed, but stressed that once the vote to declare a mistake was made, the TNC zone was vital because it alone guarantees that whatever is built will meet county-adopted design guidelines for the corridor. The vote for TNC was unanimous.

Sigaty added that the rezoning gives the TNC zone a chance, and if it doesn't work out, the council can revisit the issue during comprehensive rezoning. "It's a good time to have somebody who wants to develop and needs to develop to try it," she said.

The Moxleys' plan is to demolish the center in stages, starting with the vacant supermarket building and the row of stores attached, and build new, environmentally friendly stores topped with offices in an "Avenue" arrangement. The apartments would go in four-story buildings surrounding garages on five undeveloped acres at the rear of the site.

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