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Agreement is reached to develop former Gateway School site in Clarksville

By Lindsey McPherson, lmcpherson@patuxent.com

6:10 PM EDT, July 24, 2012

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The vision for developing the former Gateway School site in Clarksville is the same — it will be a sustainably-designed, pedestrian-oriented, community-inviting environment.

But all the pieces planned for the development, notably a hotel and office space, may never come to fruition.

The county, which owns the 7.8-acre parcel off Route 108 where the Gateway School once stood, has entered into a new sales agreement with developer GreenStone Ventures II LLC, County Executive Ken Ulman announced Monday, July 23.

The $5 million agreement is for a two-phase development, the second of which is dependent upon obtaining greater access to the Gateway site — an issue that has stood in the way of this project moving forward since GreenStone was picked to develop it in 2010.

Ulman said he hopes the outstanding issues can be resolved and the Gateway site can be built into a development "that creates a sense of place and brings people together.

"Obviously, so far it hasn't done that, but my hope is it will now," Ulman said.

The first phase involves retail, a restaurant and a farmer's market concept. The agreement calls for the county to receive $2 million for that phase to begin.

"Our agreement with (GreenStone) is they still have to do the market square, they still have to do the environmental features that were pledged, the rain gardens, green roofs and solar, the pedestrian connections along (Route) 108 ... We made sure that they continued to abide by those values, those features," Ulman said.

In a statement, George Stone, principal of GreenStone Ventures, affirmed that commitment: "We are thrilled that the county was able to get this project back on track, and we look forward to making certain that we exceed the high standards and expectations that have been set for all of us."

Stone could not be reached for further comment.

The second phase is envisioned to involve office space, more retail and restaurant space and possibly a hotel. The county would get $3 million once the second phase is complete, but it's questionable if that will ever happen.

The first half of the project is being supported by an existing driveway off Route 108 that once led to the school but now leads to an empty parcel of land. The State Highway Administration, which owns Route 108 and the right of way where the driveway sits, has approved the driveway to be modified to support left-hand turns in and out of the site, under the condition the development is limited to 27,000 square feet of retail space and a 6,500 square foot restaurant.

Broader access needed

For the second half of the project to happen, a larger, signalized access point would have to be built. But that would require GreenStone, as the soon-to-be owner of the Gateway site, to work with neighbors on either side of the planned development to build it.

GreenStone's original plans for a mixed-use center of retail, offices and a hotel, slated to be called Clarksville Commons, were conditioned upon such access. Their previous $5 million sales agreement with the county was terminated in July 2011 because they were unable to obtain it.

George and Holly Stone, the Clarksville residents behind GreenStone, had sought to gain access to the site by extending Great Star Drive across Route 108 between the Gateway site and Kendall Hardware to the left. To do that, GreenStone needed to obtain a portion of the Kendall property.

In an interview last year, Steve Kendall said he gave the Stones an opportunity to buy an easement to use his driveway for access, but "they just don't like the purchase price." It was later revealed that the Kendalls were asking for $1.3 million.

Also in an interview last year, Ulman said there is "a huge discrepancy, almost a laughable discrepancy" between what the Kendalls believe the easement is worth and what the county believes it is worth.

Last August, the Ulman administration presented a proposal to the Planning Board for a $4.3 million road project to connect Auto Drive, Great Star Drive and Route 108.

A schematic drawing of the potential connection showed the road going through the Kendalls' and other property owners' land. The drawing led County Council member Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, and many Clarksville area residents to believe the county was considering using its power of eminent domain to take the land.

"We were never proposing condemnation, nor will we in the future," Ulman said Monday.

The County Council eventually approved $600,000 for a traffic study of the area, but no money for construction of any road extensions.

The traffic study, which the council had extended to include the entire Route 108 corridor between Route 32 and Linden Linthicum Lane, is still underway. It is expected to be completed in the next few months.

'Figure out a way'

With preliminary data from the traffic study, the State Highway Administration determined the driveway could be altered to accommodate a smaller development than the ones the Stones had originally proposed.

Though he is still hopeful that the broader access needed for the second phase of the development will happen, Ulman said it will only be if one of the neighbors voluntarily decides to work with GreenStone on the issue.

"I spoke with Steve Kendall today," Ulman said Monday. "My hope is over the long-term that we figure out a way to work together, but only if it's something that they think is in their best interest as well."

William Erskine, the Kendalls' attorney, said Monday evening he had not yet talked to his clients. However, he noted: "The determination by the State Highway Administration will allow the county to have access to the site without it being dependent on the Kendall property. In that sense, it's a good thing."

The other option for access Ulman noted would be for GreenStone to work with Security Development Corp., owners of the Clarksville Square development to the right of the Gateway site.

Steven Breeden, a principal of Security Development, said the company would be open to such discussions, but it would need to see a plan.

"We'd love to be involved with the county piece adjacent to us," he said. Security Development had applied to develop the Gateway site, but its proposal lost out to GreenStone.

Though it's now up to the Stones to negotiate a deal for the access, Ulman noted: "Clearly we still have an interest because there's $3 million of value that we'd like to achieve in the future."

While the prospects of the second half of the development are unclear, all GreenStone needs to do to get the ball rolling on the first phase is to submit a site plan to the county and go through the county's approval process.

Though he's not sure when GreenStone will be plans to do that, Ulman said: "I'm optimistic that it will be reasonably quickly, only because they've spent so much time over the last few years studying it."