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River Hill Garden Center property rezoned for business

"Ecstatic" was the word Stephen and Cathy Klein, co-owners of the River Hill Garden Center, used to describe how they felt after learning the county Zoning Board voted to rezone their 6-acre property from residential to business.

"It will ensure the survivability of the garden center," Stephen Klein said. The Kleins plan to extend the garden center's hours and add a nonseasonal element to their business, which is located off Route 108 in Clarksville.

The Zoning Board, which is the County Council sitting on zoning matters, approved the zoning change to B-1 (business local) in a 3-2 vote.

"The uses that are allowed in B-1 are uses that would actually benefit the community, not detriment the community," board member Mary Kay Sigaty said before voting for the change. It will allow the Kleins to add a restaurant, coffee shop, banquet facility, convenience store, drug store or one of about 20 other uses allowed in a B-1 zoning district.

But a handful of residents who live behind the garden center on Whistling Winds Walk disagreed with the board's decision.

David Elsaesser, the Whistling Winds resident who headed the opposition, said he and his neighbors are concerned additions at the garden center could lead to longer hours, brighter lights and offensive smells. However, he said he understands the board's decision was a tough one.

"I think they struggled with it," Elsaesser said.

Board Chairwoman Courtney Watson and board member Greg Fox, the two who voted against the zoning change, said they did struggle with the decision because they wanted to help the garden center.

"I think we all want the River Hill Garden Center to succeed; I think we all want it to thrive and grow," Watson said. "But I think we all have differences of opinion on how to get there."

A decision on the zoning would have been best made during the comprehensive rezoning process the council will go through in the next year or so, Watson said.

"We don't know what's happening with Clarksville; we don't know what kind of development we're going to do there with the master plan," she said. "I'm just making a plea that we be careful about the doors we open on that side of Clarksville."

Fox agreed, also pointing out that the board members, in their role as the County Council, could draft an amendment to the county's zoning regulations on garden center operations but narrowly tailor it so it would help the Kleins but not affect other properties.

But board member Jen Terrasa objected to that suggestion. "It's bad precedent to depend on future legislation," she said.

Previous council erred

Before granting the rezoning, the board had to decide that the previous council erred in the 2003 comprehensive rezoning process.

The Kleins were granted a special zoning exception in 1989 so they could operate their garden center on residential property. But when the county renamed special exceptions "conditional uses" in 2001 and created a list of businesses allowed to operate as a conditional use, garden centers did not make the cut. Thus, the Kleins' business has been operating as a nonconforming use for almost a decade.

However, the council members who went through the last comprehensive rezoning process in 2003 did not know the garden center was a nonconforming use because it had never been confirmed through a formal county process. If they had known, they likely would have approved a zoning change, the Department of Planning and Zoning argued in its technical staff report.

In a 4-1 vote, the board agreed the previous council made a mistake based on the misinformation that the garden center was operating under a conditional use. Fox, the only board member to disagree, said he was not convinced the previous council would have rezoned the property to B-1, even with the correct information.

After the board members sign the document outlining their decision, the opposition will have 30 days to appeal before the zoning change would take effect. Elsaesser said he does not plan to continue the fight, but his neighbor Cynthia Asoka might. Asoka declined to comment.

William Erskine, the Kleins' attorney, said they are expecting and prepared for an appeal.

"I'm really confident in the strength of the record," he said.

The Kleins, meanwhile, are out of the country on their annual tour of independent garden centers.

"We're looking for new ideas, new innovations to stay ahead of the curve," Stephen Klein said Tuesday, July 12, from Norway. "Also, we're looking for new sources. … We try to carry quality products that you wouldn't normally see in department stores."

Klein said he and his wife have yet to decide what nonseasonal element would work best with their business, and that it probably would be another 18 months or so before they add anything.

"That gives me the opportunity to do the necessary planning and negotiating with someone else," he said.

In the meantime, the Kleins plan to extend their business hours, which had been limited under their special exception from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., to roughly 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

"With the closure at 6 o'clock, that does stop us from getting any after-work customer base," Klein said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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