Bel Air commissioners approve land swap

After months of hearing residents' views for and against, negotiating with the landowner and even walking the property in question, the Bel Air town commissioners voted unanimously Monday in favor of a land swap involving part of the town's Memorial Tree Grove in Shamrock Park.

The town will swap 900 square feet of land it owns along the 300 block of Lee Way – part of the southwest corner of the grove – for 4,200 square feet of a lot owned by George and Carroll Felton north of the grove, so the Felton family can build a single-family house on undeveloped land with driveway access to Lee Way.

The additional 4,200 square feet would allow the town to expand the Memorial Tree Grove.

"I appreciate the process that we've worked through, and I want to do what's best for this community," Matt Felton said during a public hearing that preceded Monday's vote.

Matt Felton is the son of Carroll and George, and he has been working with town officials on the swap on his parents' behalf.

Kevin Small, Bel Air's director of planning, said during Monday's meeting that Felton will cover any expenses related to the land swap. He will also be required to maintain an existing 15-foot vegetative buffer along the property line shared with the town, and town officials recommended planting an additional evergreen buffer.

Felton had also agreed to remove an existing chain-link fence, and underbrush and invasive plants which have grown up on the property before conveying it to the town, Small explained.

Eight people spoke during a public hearing preceding the commissioners' vote; about half were for the land swap and half were against it.

One resident, Tom Hopkins, had previously spoken passionately against the land swap. He even reminded the commissioners during a town meeting in February that their predecessors had voted a decade ago to never do anything with the land other than leave it as part of the memorial grove, when the Felton family offered to buy the 900 square feet.

Hopkins told town leaders Monday his views had changed, after walking the property and obtaining more information about the swap.

"I think it's a win-win," he said.

Hopkins said he had opposed it before "because I felt that we were losing ground and giving away something and not gaining much."

Several other residents who live in the vicinity of Shamrock Park continued to oppose the swap and urged the commissioners to vote against it because of concerns about flooding and the impact on surrounding wetlands.

"Flooding is quite bad back there and I don't even know how you can build a house back in that area," George Jones, a resident of nearby Faulkner Court, said.

Shane Simms, of Maxwell Place, noted a house would be built on the property regardless of whether a land swap is approved – the Feltons have sought the 900 square feet along Lee Way because of the difficulty of building a longer driveway from Shamrock Road, across an existing stream and wetlands.

Simms encouraged support of the land swap, because the town would obtain a larger parcel for a "little chunk" of what it owns.

"I hear all the concerns of the citizens, but it's a no-brainer for me," he said.

Hayes Smith, who lives across from the property in question, questioned why a house had not been built in the previous 10 years, following up on Simms' presentation.

He noted during the hearing "everything in Bel Air, from Main Street, flows down to that spot."

He said later the land is not suitable for homebuilding.

"We don't need to keep jamming houses every place possible, or impossible," he said.

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