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As Renaissance festival opens, its future fiefdom is unclear

With a burst of cannon fire and cheers of "Hip! Hip! Huzzah!" on Saturday morning, the denizens of the wooded hamlet of Revel Grove welcomed King Henry VIII for his 30th annual visit.

But it's unclear how much longer the king will be traveling to Revel Grove, nestled in the Anne Arundel County suburb of Crownsville, where his visit is celebrated with costumed revelers, musical and theater acts, vendors selling period clothes and gifts and enough meat pies and goblets of mead to nourish them all.

Since 1985, the Maryland Renaissance Festival has celebrated life in a simpler time on a 130-acre property in the center of the county.

Saying he needs more "elbow room," Jules Smith, president of the festival, has proposed moving the whole affair to an 238-acre farm 22 miles to the south in Lothian.

"I'm in favor of them growing," said Brian Reid, a private school history teacher from Glen Burnie, who ate gyros with his wife, Roxanne, and their three kids: 4-year-old Noah, 2-year-old Drake and 1-year-old Allison.

They all came in costume for the first day of the nine-week festival season, though the little ones didn't remain in character for long. Brian was a woodsman, Roxanne a peasant, Noah was Robin Hood, Drake was Friar Tuck and little Allison wore a Cinderella dress.

The Reids plan to return to the festival a few times this season. Brian Reid planned to scout for ideas for his school's fall festival, which will have a Renaissance theme.

As the merriment continues for patrons and vendors this fall, Smith will spend several nights in a government building in Annapolis with his second attempt at gaining the legal approval to make the move to Lothian.

Smith's first attempt at winning special zoning approvals for the move was shot down by a county hearing officer this summer. Round two will begin on Sept. 4, when Smith appears before the Anne Arundel County Board of Appeals to make his case again. The board has scheduled six nights of hearings through September and October.

Though Smith has a long-term lease at Crownsville, he's been on the lookout for about seven years for a new home that would allow the festival to have more room than the current site affords. He scouted several properties in Central Maryland and on the Eastern Shore before striking a deal with the owner of a farm in Lothian, a rural community in southern Anne Arundel.

In order to move, Smith and Lothian property owner Michael Booth need two special zoning approvals. Under zoning laws, renaissance festivals in Anne Arundel must be located on a major road called an "arterial" road and cannot be on a road that's designated as "scenic and historic."

The Lothian site doesn't meet either condition — although it sits close to Maryland Route 4, which is an arterial road, it's technically on Upper Pindell Road, which has the scenic and historic designation.

At a zoning hearing on the move earlier this summer, Lothian residents, including former County Executive Janet S. Owens, said the festival and its 300,000 annual visitors would bring noise and traffic, upsetting their tranquil corner of the county.

County planners recommended denial of the zoning variances, saying the festival would be incompatible with the surrounding community.

Several festival vendors — including a few in Renaissance attire — spoke passionately in favor of the move, saying they implicitly trust Smith to do what's best for both the festival and the community.

If the festival wins approval to move to Lothian, Smith envisions building a more comfortable attraction with wider walkways, more landscaped gardens, additional performance stages and more room for vendors to work and sell their goods. He'd also build a Royal Hall that would offer food and entertainment and could be rented for receptions.

Renaissance festival devotee Joyce Howard of Bowie was curious about the Lothian location, so she recently took a drive down there. Her assessment: The Lothian farm would be a great spot.

"We're really excited," said Howard, who owns a cleaning company with her daughter, Tisha Poland. Both women came to the festival dressed as wenches.

Their friend, Robert Hull, retired government employee who lives near Fredericksburg, Va., had a simple reason for his endorsement of the Lothian site. It would cut down the 90-minute drive he makes to attend the festival every weekend.

Hull, dressed as a member of the middle class in knickers and a hat decorated with black feathers, drives up with friend Lynn Peverill, a retired teacher. Both are former performers from a now-closed festival in Virginia, and they're drawn by the camaraderie at the Crownsville festival.

"It's a costume party in the woods where you can be who you want to be and nobody judges," Peverill said.

As the opening of the festival season approached on Saturday morning, Deanna Revere of Severn served her tailgating crew of pirates and wenches Scotch eggs — a concoction of boiled eggs wrapped in sausage and bread crumbs.

Revere has been attending the Crownsville festival for years with her husband, father and other friends. She'd hate to see it move.

"I want to stay here," said Revere, who spends most of her week as an accountant. "It's convenient. We know the lay of the land. We love it."

Despite overcast skies and intermittent rain, the first day of the season at the Maryland Renaissance Festival drew thousands of revelers. They laughed at a juggler, were awed by a sword-swallower and perused shops selling flowery garlands, lace-up corsets and Celtic kilts.

Opening day also drew a small demonstration of about a dozen animal rights activists who protested the festival's elephant rides, though no elephants were at the festival on Saturday morning. The protesters stood outside a festival entrance on Crownsville Road waving signs with slogans such as "Ban cruel elephant rides" and "Renaissance Festival: Stuck in the dark ages."

For residents of Crownsville, opinions are mixed about the festival's potential move, said Mark Zablotny, president of the Generals Highway Council of Civic Associations, an umbrella organization for neighborhood groups in Crownsville. Many worry about what would happen to the property if the festival moves, he said.

Already, residents are trying to get the state-owned former Crownsville Hospital Center just down the road redeveloped in a way that's amenable to the community. Zablotny said residents are worried the renaissance festival site could be turned into a housing community or other development that could generate year-round traffic troubles.

Some neighbors sick of traffic problems and driving mishaps are happy to see the Maryland Renaissance Festival pack its bags and head south, Zablotny said. But he'd rather see the festival stay, especially since his neighborhood has a back way out that allows him to avoid festival traffic.

"I love the renaissance festival. I have so much fun there," Zablotny said. "I hate to see them move, I do."

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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