MedStar Health's plan to build a $30 million medical facility on the outskirts of Bel Air, at Emmorton and Plumtree roads, cleared nearly every aspect of a Harford County Development Advisory Committee review Wednesday morning.
The one exception was the proposed traffic plan for a key intersection south of the site.
Committee member Rich Zeller, regional engineer for the State Highway Administration's Access Management Division, said SHA officials have expressed concerns over a proposal to remove "the side street split phasing" at the intersection of Route 24 and Wheel Road, about a mile southwest of the MedStar site.
With an estimated 500 to 800 patients using the various MedStar medical services at that location each day, traffic engineers hired by developer Bel Air Property Development LLC of Minneapolis expect a number of intersections along the already heavily-developed Route 24 and Route 924 (Emmorton Road) corridors would be affected by the MedStar facility.
The site would consist of two three-story buildings taking up a combined 130,000 square feet on the 16.27-acre site; the larger 102,235-square foot building would be built first, along with the parking lot.
The second, smaller building will be built "when the need arises," project manager Gerry Powell, of the Bel Air engineering firm Frederick Ward Associates, said.
Powell said a groundbreaking on the first building is expected to take place this summer and it would open to the public in the fall of 2014.
"When the need arises the smaller building will be built," he continued.
Powell said removing the split phasing where eastbound Wheel Road intersects with Route 24 would allow for the construction of an "exclusive" left turn lane onto northbound Route 24 heading toward MedStar.
"That's what our traffic study is showing what we need to do there," Powell said. "Otherwise, we have a failing intersection."
Drivers who want to turn left from eastbound Wheel onto Route 24 can only do so at a "through" lane, which also runs straight across Route 24. That intersection is just south of the Festival at Bel Air Shopping Center and is also used heavily by people traveling to and from a number of residential neighborhoods west of Route 24, as well as the Abingdon library.
David Buck, a spokesman for the SHA, said split phasing allows traffic on one side of an intersection to turn or go straight for a period of time, then stop to allow traffic on the other side to proceed.
In a Feb. 15 letter to Alex Rawls, Harford County's transportation planner, officials with SHA had expressed concerns with the impact on "sight distance" at the intersection if the split phasing is removed.
"For safety, the split phase on MD 24 at Wheel Road must remain," Steven D. Foster, chief of SHA's Access Management Division, wrote in the letter to Rawls. "This improvement is needed for sight distance and intersection geometics. Alternative mitigation must be proposed for this location."
Buck wrote in an email Thursday that "Since there is a sight distance issue on Wheel Road approaching MD 24, engineers do not want traffic on the side street (i.e. Wheel Road) to move through the intersection at the same time."
He added: "The addition of an exclusive left turn lane on eastbound Wheel does not eliminate the safety issue with the limited sight distance at the intersection. We are not opposed to the developer adding the new turn lane but the split phasing of the traffic signal is crucial to moving traffic through the intersection safely and will remain."
Buck said in an interview the developers must determine alternatives for mitigating their impact on the intersection.
Powell said Thursday the developers are awaiting further written comment from SHA about the matter, and once they have it, engineers will either evaluate the intersection and determine if "we can alleviate their concerns," or find another way to mitigate.
Just one person from the Bel Air South community spoke during the review meeting in Bel Air.
Bill Wehland, who lives near the MedStar site, expressed concerns about traffic in the commercial corridor, especially with a proposal by Walmart to build a store, also at the intersection of Plumtree and Route 924, diagonally across the latter from the MedStar facility.
"It's just an open question; it's a [concern] that all the traffic impacts among [Route] 924, [Route] 24 and Plumtree Road have not been dealt with in totality," Wehland said. "If it isn't Walmart it's going to be something else; if it isn't MedStar it's going to be something else."
Although Wehland has been involved with the Bel Air South Foundation, the organization leading the fight against the proposed Walmart, he has expressed previous support publicly for Medstar project, albeit with his continued reservations about the overall traffic situation, as expressed again Wednesday.
The DAC is made up of representatives of local, state and federal agencies, including the SHA, the county Health Department, Emergency Services and more, who review subdivision and site plans which have been submitted to Harford County's Department of Planning and Zoning, according to a pamphlet on the Committee.
Moe Davenport, chairman of the DAC and chief of development review for the county Department Planning and Zoning, said once the revised traffic study is approved, the vommittee can recommend approval of the site plans and, assuming it does, construction on the first building can proceed.