Nine hours of testimony, spread over three weeks, wrapped up Wednesday evening in a long-running Harford County zoning appeals case for a 198-unit apartment complex planned in the Bel Air South area.
"Thanks to everyone for coming out and struggling through these three days of hearings," Zoning Hearing Examiner Robert Kahoe Jr. said as the third and final segment of testimony ended close to 9:45 p.m. Wednesday. The session had started at 6:30 p.m.
On the final night, lawyers for applicant Peak Management LLC of Timonium – which is seeking approval to build the apartment complex on 17.54 acres owned by the Evergreen Business Trust of Bel Air – and residents of the community surrounding the property presented arguments for and against approval of the zoning special exception being sought. Harford County zoning officials also testified.
The 198 garden apartments are slated to be built on land that is forested and is bounded by Route 24 at the east, Plumtree Road at the north and the Bel Air South Professional Center at the south. An unfinished section of Tollgate Road would be built on the western boundary if the project is approved, completing the last link of the county road between Route 924 in Abingdon and Bel Air.
The county approved an initial plan for apartments on the site in 1992, but the developers have since revised and presented a new plan for approval. They have also submitted a separate request for a zoning boundary to be adjusted to allow for the 198th unit to be built – density requirements in the current zoning areas would only allow for 197 units and a fraction of another unit to be built.
Residents of nearby Cypress Drive and neighboring subdivisions have expressed concerns about the impact on neighborhood traffic, surrounding wetlands, increased noise and light, and a lowering of property values if the apartments are rented to low-income tenants. There is another large rental apartment complex called Calvert's Walk just south of Bel Air South Parkway.
County planning officials have recommended denial of the applicants' plans, because they are not satisfied with the developer's proposals to mitigate traffic and environmental impacts.
Projects of the size slated for the Evergreen property – considered a Planned Residential Development under local zoning laws – ultimately must be approved by the Harford County Council, which also sits as the board of the appeals, unless there are challenges to the examiner's opinion from any of the parties involved.
Testimony before Kahoe – who will issue a written advisory opinion to the board of appeals/county council – began Feb. 13.
Evergreen's lawyer, Robert Lynch, of Bel Air, spent the first two sessions presenting the case for approval. Planners, engineers and architects hired by the developer to work on the project gave detailed testimony on their efforts accommodate traffic flow and minimize the environmental impact. Evergreen's property is under contract to be sold to Peak Management.
County officials, residents speak
Wednesday night was the opportunity for the county to present its recommendations on the application and for residents to weigh in. Harford County Zoning People's Counsel Brian Young called two county officials as witnesses.
Anthony McClune, deputy director of Planning and Zoning for Harford County, testified the project plans meet most requirements for a Planned Residential Development, but he said he and other county officials still have reservations about traffic and environmental impacts, even though the developer submitted traffic plans suggesting improvements to major intersections in the vicinity of the property to account for increased traffic flow.
"The department is concerned about traffic in the area, and at this point has not been supplied a traffic study that addresses our concerns, and therefore the department has recommended that the request be denied," McClune said.
McClune also expressed reservations about plans to build stormwater management facilities and a walking trail in a section of a county Natural Resources District buffer bordering the property.
He said regulations regarding activity in the NRD require "minimal soil disturbance and minimal removal of natural ground cover," even with "permitted uses."
"It's not a conventional development, and so there are specific guidelines above and beyond the general zoning code," McClune said, while being cross examined by Lynch.
Cheryl Banigan, chief of the Traffic & Transportation section at the Harford County Department of Public Works, said county staff and the developer's traffic engineers could not agree on improvements to major surrounding intersections, such as Plumtree Road and Route 24, or how to mitigate traffic flow on collector roads, such as Tollgate, and on other issues.
"I have concerns about the safety with the proposed improvements," she said.
Noise, traffic, other fears cited
Five residents of the vicinity of Cypress Drive gave their views of the project.
Lauren Rose said she is concerned over noise and light pollution, as well as how disturbances in the NRD could "increase the flooding, and that our backyard will become a swamp."
Rose talked about the value of the neighboring wetlands to the community. She cited a environmental report prepared by Ecotone Inc. of Jarrettsville for Peak Management, which noted "the headwater of a low-lying stream valley is situated along the west-central portion of the site," which drains into the Winters Run stream that flows into nearby Atkisson Reservoir.
Joseph Patterson said he fears "my privacy is going to be severely compromised, because people on the second or third floors [of the apartments] are going to be able to look into my backyard and my pool area."
He said he is also concerned the removal of wooded areas would amplify light from the apartment complex, and noise from existing businesses and restaurants.
David Thursby, of the nearby Camelot subdivision, said he is concerned the apartments would be rented to low-income tenants who qualify for federal Section 8 vouchers – developers have stated the apartments would not be open to Section 8 residents – as well as increased traffic on Tollgate.
Jerry Cook, who owns two parcels covering two acres north of the Evergreen property, said he is concerned over the potential impacts to the local water table – he draws his drinking water from wells on his property – and about traffic and emergency response times.
"It seems like the wrong way to go for the adjacent property owners," he said.
William Vesperman of Cypress Drive noted when Route 24 was first built, it was meant to be a "limited-access" road ferrying traffic between I-95 and Bel Air.
"Now we have anything but limited access," he said.
Vesperman noted the commercial development that has sprung up along Route 24, and how the parallel Tollgate Road has become a "quick conduit" for drivers who want to avoid Route 24 and take a back road to Harford Mall.
"I think it's going to be a detriment to this community, because you're going to have more noise, more light," he said.
Tollgate Road issues
Bill Wehland, who lives north of Plumtree Road and northwest of the Evergreen property, made a detailed presentation about why the apartment complex application should be denied, citing potential impacts to traffic, emergency response times, the safety of existing residents, and the future apartment residents and property values. He also cited his consultations with county emergency responders and other officials.
Wehland has spoken out frequently about development in the Route 24 corridor, and has been among the residents fighting the building of a Walmart on the east side of Route 24, across from the proposed apartment complex site. Evergreen Business Trust owns the land on both sides of the highway and has a contract to sell the east side parcel to Walmart.
"Tollgate Road is a one-lane road in each direction, and it's not designed to handle the volume of traffic of a main arterial road," Wehland said.
Wehland also encouraged Kahoe to consider "background development" in the surrounding area – other projects such as the Walmart and construction of a large MedStar Health complex are also going through the approval process.
Wehland and Kahoe argued at several points during Wehland's presentation, but the hearing examiner stressed "we respect what you have to say."
"I know you've spent a lot of time in your presentation tonight," Kahoe told Wehland. "I don't mean to minimize it."
Kahoe asked attorneys for both sides to submit written briefs as he prepares his opinion and said he wants the briefs to focus on traffic and environmental impacts.
"You can press anything you want, but I'd be particularly interested in those two issues," the hearing examiner said.