Howard gets an earful on Eldersburg senior housing proposal

But commissioner says planners, not politicians, should make the call

May 03, 2012|By Bob Allen

Weeks ago, when 5th District County Commissioner Doug Howard scheduled his April 30 meeting with Eldersburg residents, he assumed it would be the usual "get-together" where the commissioner gives updates on ongoing issues such as the county budget, funding for schools and the future of the beleaguered Carrolltown Center mall.

But by the time this past week's meeting rolled around, a more pressing matter steam rolled other issues aside — namely the controversial proposal to build a 235-unit retirement facility on the 16-acre Ely property near the Oklahoma and Bennett roads in Eldersburg.

The development, proposed by Rockville developer Marc Silverman, is currently being reviewed by the county Planning and Zoning Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals. It proposes a complex possibly as tall as three stories, and as long as 400 feet.

The plan faces resistance from neighbors, and on Monday more than 100 residents came to the meeting at the South Carroll Senior Center to express concerns about increased traffic, the impact on the neighborhood's rural character and the possible impact on nearby property values.

In recent weeks, residents have plastered Oklahoma and Bennett roads on either side of the intersection with signs and posters opposing the retirement facility.

Howard, with assistance of Kimberley Brandt, development review and currency manager for the county Department of Land Use, Planning and Development, outlined the process that the county relies on to review developments such as this one, which may ultimately require county approval for zoning variances.

Howard also went to great lengths to explain that his legal authority are limited insofar as trying to influence its outcome.

He said the planning commission's decision on the project can and most likely will be appealed to the county Board of Zoning Appeals. That decision, in turn, can be appealed to the Circuit Court. All of this will take months, he said, and the Board of Commissioners is not directly involved in the process.

"Unfortunately, some of these things that seem like they would come under the purview of the Board of Commissioners really don't," said Howard, who avoided staking out a personal stand on the project.

"I'm not here to take a position," he said.

Howard cited several instances where the Board of Commissioners had interfered in the development review and approval process and embroiled the county in lawsuits and costly settlements.

"It's really not a great idea for commissioners to be monkeying around with zoning issues," he said, "because they can have such wide implications."

Howard reminded residents that one reason the approval process lies with the of the Planning and Zoning Commission — and not the elected board of commissioners — is "so politicians can't say, 'We're gonna make a deal with so-and-so.' "

That was not what some residents wanted to hear. A couple of times, early in the evening, the meeting threatened to degenerate into a shouting match. Several residents stormed out.

Some comments shouted out from the near-standing-room-only audience expressed frustration:

"How would you like a big parking lot built right next to your house, Mr. Howard?"

"You let this project go through and this area is going to be 'Randallstown, Part Two,' "shouted one person, referencing congestion along the Randallstown corridor of Liberty Road in Baltimore County.

"But the thing you have to be careful about is giving an elected official too much power ... to pick and choose developments," Howard said.

"I understand why some of you are upset, but I would also not assume the process is not working," Howard replied. "I think it is."

An April 17 hearing on the project concluded with the planning commission requesting that Silverman revise the plan based on members' questions and concerns about a preliminary design.

Brandt told the audience that she's seen cases where developers submitted as many as four revisions before either the commission made a decision or the developer decided the project was no longer feasible.

In the end, one resident asked Howard if he felt the community was being effective in its opposition to the project.

"Yes," Howard said. "The more people who come out to the planning commission hearings and the more informed and specific their comments, it will affect the process.

"I think you're doing exactly the right thing, exactly what I'd be doing," he said.

Carrolltown to Warfield

During the meeting, Howard was also asked about the fate of the nearly-empty Carrolltown Center, now thatK-Marthas announced it will close its store in the mall.

"I didn't know about that (closing) until people started calling and thanking me for it," Howard replied with a smile, "even though I didn't have anything to do with it."

Howard said he recently met with representatives from Black Oak Associates, the mall's Owings Mill-based owner, but they didn't reveal any specific plans.

"I've heard all the same rumors that you have, and that's all they are — rumors," he said. "But probably by the end of the summer some construction may start there. They (Black Oak) are ready to go" once K-Mart closes, he said.

In regard to other South Carroll economic development projects, Howard noted that Liberty Exchange, the new 225,000-square-foot commercial complex on Liberty Road, just west of Eldersburg, "is starting to fill up."

And he said former Sykesville Mayor Jonathan Herman also recently finalized his lease agreement for a building at the Warfield Cultural and Commerce Center — the first new lease signed there in five years.

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