Representatives of Royal Farms encountered a group of hostile Joppatowne residents during a community input meeting Thursday on their plans to build a new convenience store with a gas station at Joppa Farm Road and Kearney Drive.
The new Royal Farms store, which company officials hope to open by June of 2018, would replace an existing store on the property. That store, which would be demolished, does not have a gas station.
The new store is part of a larger project to redevelop the Royal Farms and make site improvements to the neighboring Harford Bank property.
The bank branch, which fronts Riviera Drive, is next door to the convenience store. Most of the surrounding area is residential, and Joppatowne High School is about half a mile away, but the Royal Farms site is zoned B2 for commercial uses, including a gas station.
"Everything you see being put on this drawing is allowable by right," Bob Capalongo, of the CNA engineering firm in Forest Hill, said during the community input meeting, an early step in Harford County's property development process, which drew a crowd that filled the meeting room in the Joppa Library. Some attendees had to stand along the walls and in the doorway.
Capalongo showed the standing-room only audience a sketch plan that details the locations of new structures, such as a canopy covering four proposed fueling stations plus underground fuel storage tanks, improvements to the exits and entrances from surrounding roads and landscaping,
Royal Farms representatives said they want to attract motorists and boaters who want to fuel up their vessels and get food and drinks at the same time. The new store and fuel station is expected to bring 40 jobs to the area, according to Jack Whisted, senior corporate engineer for Royal Farms.
Whisted, who handles construction of Royal Farms stores, had to win over people who considered the project a "done deal," regardless of their own views on the plan.
Several neighborhood residents expressed their opposition to having a gas station in the midst of a residential area, and a handful of people said their homes are across the street from the site.
Some said they were concerned about bright lights, increased traffic, noise, the store being a magnet for crime and the potential harm to the environment. The recently reopened Joppatowne Marina, which is along the Gunpowder River, is across Riviera Drive from the bank.
"We have water resources within a couple hundred feet," resident Don Merritt said.
People also were skeptical about the new store being an improvement for the community, as they described littering, loud music, loitering youths and drug dealing as common occurrences around the existing store.
Some attendees were so incensed, they threatened to boycott Royal Farms and pull their accounts from Harford Bank.
County Councilman Mike Perrone, whose district includes Joppatowne, stepped in.
"When businesses go out, they might be replaced by nothing," he warned.
Whisted stressed his company takes community concerns seriously. He said the new store will have about 17 security cameras, that the exterior lighting must be designed in accordance with county codes to minimize the impact to neighbors.
Tom Ruszin, fuel and environmental leader for Royal Farms, said the underground tanks have multiple safety features and technology to detect fuel leaks and alert employees on site and in corporate offices.
"You have the right to express your opinion all the way though this process," Whisted said. "We're not coming here, trying to jam it down your throat, we're coming here to try to explain to you what's coming and we're trying to do it in a civil manner."
Perrone, who lives in Joppatowne, also noted the Royal Farms site has been zoned for commercial use since Joppatowne, a planned community, was designed in the 1960s.
The public can express its views on development projects through County Council members and also can comment during Development Advisory Committee hearings, which is the next step in the county review process. The DAC, which is made up of representatives of county and state agencies reviews plans and recommends adjustments so plans comply with county and state codes related to issues such as public safety, health, transportation networks, water and sewer service and stormwater management.
"It's simple, pack that room," Merritt, the local resident, said of the upcoming DAC hearing for the project. "Let them know how we feel."
Norm Pelissier, who lives across the street from the Royal Farms, has lived in Joppatowne since 1965. He told the audience residents were up in arms about a prior gas station being built on the site many years ago, and they boycotted the business.
He noted the boycott ended after three or four days, however.
"They needed gas," Pelissier said.