Plans for a new Royal Farms gas station and convenience store on Edmondson Avenue in Catonsville were approved in December — after a public hearing that the community wasn’t properly notified of, according to the area’s neighborhood association leader.
“The comment period ended on Jan. 4,” Ingleside Neighborhood Association President Matthew Riesner said. “And I found out [about the project] the evening of Jan. 4, past business hours ... This is a real issue of county government transparency.”
The administrative hearing was held to grant Royal Farms and the land owner, Stilling Properties, a special exception to redevelop the property stretching across 6124, 6126 and 6132 Edmondson Avenue, which lies on a 100-year flood plain, and to install a gas station.
Under the plan, a liquor store and automotive service garage would be razed to make way for the Royal Farms convenience store and gas station, county documents said.
A hearing was held on Dec. 1. The waiver was approved on Dec. 5, with an appeal period lasting 30 days.
A Royal Farms convenience store already exists a few hundred feet from the site of the proposed location in an area residents say is not ideal for the level of traffic it receives.
Jason Stilling, the property owner, declined a request for comment and information about the project, saying he was “not allowed to speak about it.” Royal Farms did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
“Personally, I don’t see any reason to be too alarmed by [the project],” Riesner said, noting the new location would suit Royal Farms better. “But the issue is doing this so secretively.”
Riesner said that as the local community association leader, he would have liked to receive notification about the hearing. Though he is generally positive about the project, Riesner said there are issues he would like to discuss, including traffic and crime.
Jason Miller, a nearby Harlem Lane resident, said he was concerned about the crime that he said convenience stores attract, as well as the environmental impact of food waste from the store’s popular prepared fried chicken.
“I’m not totally opposed to Royal Farms,” Miller said. “It’s just, it is going to have an impact.”
“People in the area have a positive view of Royal Farms,” Riesner said. “By doing this, they’re really creating enemies where they don’t have to have them.”
Notifying the public
Public notice requirements were less stringent for the Edmondson Avenue plans than for other high-profile development projects because the Catonsville project only required a zoning hearing, rather than a development hearing.
"History has always been that notice requirements are greater for development than zoning,” said Arnold Jablon, head of the county Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections.
The Royal Farms project, Jablon said, is exempted from the stricter development hearing requirements expected of larger projects, such as notifying community associations.
Jablon’s department is required by county law to notify the public of hearings like the Edmondson Avenue project's by: a) “conspicuously posting” a notice on the property for at least 20 days before the hearing; b) posting a notice in a “newspaper of general circulation” at least 20 days before the hearing; and c) posting notice on the county’s website. Jablon said the county did all three.
Riesner, however, took issue with the notices posted, saying interested stakeholders did not hear about the meeting in time.
The signs on the property, for instance, were not “conspicuously” posted, Riesner said — though the county provided a document certifying signs had been posted, Riesner said the fact that owners of the businesses on the site did not see the signs shows that they were not conspicuous.
“I’m an avid runner, so I run by there at least three times a week without fail,” Miller said. “We never saw anything.”
The notices, Jablon said, were posted in The Jeffersonian, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication circulated countywide — a standard practice which fulfills the requirement that it be published in a “newspaper of general circulation.” Riesner said that the notice should have been posted in the Catonsville Times, which is more widely circulated in Catonsville.
There was a notice in a bi-weekly community newsletter for District 1 that is sent to subscribers and posted online, but the Royal Farms hearing was not included in the newsletter until Dec. 1, the day of the hearing.
Miller said that “in an ideal world,” the county could improve the public notification process by supplementing it with new technologies like social media.
The appeal period has passed, but Jablon said it is possible for residents concerned about not getting public notice to petition the Office of Administrative Hearings to waive the decision.
County Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents the area, organized a meeting for Jan. 31 with representatives from Ingleside and Academy Heights and the project’s engineer and attorney.
Riesner said ideally he would like to see a new hearing in which Royal Farms presents its plans and addresses concerns about issues such as noise and light pollution.
“Everything’s on the table,” Riesner said. “We are reviewing our options.”