Owner of Bel Air Academy still committed to redeveloping property

John Zoulis still committed to developing Bel Air Academy property, will revisit his options

Property developer John Zoulis does not plan to walk away from his efforts to redevelop the former Bel Air Academy, despite the recent withdrawal of his request to rezone the property at 45 E. Gordon St.

"At this point, we're going to have to revisit everything and see what happens, but I'm not walking away from the project, put it that way," Zoulis, president of Zoulis Properties Inc., of Linthicum, said Friday.

A number of Bel Air officials, as well as East Gordon Street residents and business owners, have voiced their concerns in recent months about Zoulis' plans to redevelop the historic site as a 32-unit apartment complex. The apartments would be split among the academy building, which dates to the 1880s, and a new four-story building next to the academy.

The academy has been unused since Harford County Public Schools, which had its headquarters there, departed for a new building on South Hickory Avenue in 2006. Zoulis purchased the property from the county at auction in February 2015 for $101,000. The building comes with a caveat from the county prohibiting demolition of the structure unless there is a clear public safety issue.

"The apartments will bring income to the Town of Bel Air, it will support the businesses, and the tax base will increase," Zoulis said.

The proposed four-story height of the second building is not allowed under the current B-2A, or central business gateway, zoning, and half the parking must be provided on-site. The Bel Air Board of Appeals rejected in October a request by Zoulis and his team for a variance on the building height. Board members, who suggested Zoulis cut down the number of apartment units, also declined to vote on his request for a variance to allow less on-site parking than required, since the exact number of units was up in the air.

Claiming the town made a mistake during is zoning review in 2009, Zoulis submitted a request to change the zoning to B-2, or central business district, the same zoning as nearby Main Street, but his attorney, Robert Kahoe of Bel Air, withdrew the request last week during a public hearing on the rezoning after the Bel Air town commissioners denied Kahoe's and Zoulis' request to postpone the hearing for more time to explain the project to the community and town planning staff.

"I'd like to inform the people, the community what exactly we're trying to do, so they can understand better," Zoulis said.

Zoulis stressed he has no intention of selling the building and its one-acre site.

"I buy buildings to fix them and be proud of them, community-wise and myself, as well," he said. "I don't buy properties and run away with a couple obstacles."

Zoulis said he still plans to redevelop the property, but he has to meet with all members of his team, as well as Bel Air planning staff, "to review our options."

"Something is not clicking with the community, and I don't want the community to have doubts about the project or myself," he said.

Nearly 20 people packed Bel Air Town Hall Jan. 4, prepared to express their concerns about the project and opposition to the rezoning.

Maryanna Skowronski, director of the Historical Society of Harford County, read a formal statement on behalf of the Historical Society.

"The society makes the argument that the decision was not a mistake," Skowronski stated, referring to the current zoning.

"The side streets off Main and Bond Street maintain the character of the original residential neighborhoods," she said, offering photos she shot the day before of Gordon Street, Broadway and Franklin Street.

Zoulis had been discussing with Historical Society officials an agreement to allow apartment residents to park on the lot behind the society's headquarters at North Main and Gordon streets.

Skowronski also gave her personal view, as a Bel Air resident, against any zoning changes.

"I just really feel that if this zoning request goes through, you're opening a Pandora's Box, because you're setting a precedent for anyone else who would request such a change elsewhere," she said. "How do you say no?"

Mike Adams, who lives east of Bel Air near Harford Community College, owns property in the first block of North Hickory Avenue with his wife.

"If [the academy property] is rezoned, and a four-and-a-half story building can go on Gordon Street, the vacant lot next to our property across the street, could that become a four-and-a-half story building?" he asked.

A number of historic homes in the neighborhood around the academy have been converted into businesses, or they remain private residences, and the owners must retain the historic character of those structures.

Robert Cassilly, a state senator who owns a historic home nearby on Broadway about a block from the site in question, noted owners of those properties are committed to preserving the character of the buildings and the neighborhood at the risk of "possibly downgrading the value of your home."

"When you designate a historic home, it only has any kind of inherent value if the neighborhood has a historic flavor," Cassilly said..

Judith Schmoll, who lives and operates a home-based business in a house across East Gordon from the academy, said she is concerned about the proposed building height, as well as parking, and the impact on traffic, especially during afternoon dismissal at Bel Air Elementary School.

"I'm the only one who lives there, so I may have new neighbors across the street," she said. "It will be interesting to see how things move forward."

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