The members of the Bel Air Planning Commission voted 4-1 Thursday to deny an application by local developer Mike Jones to build 48 townhouses on a portion of property owned by St. Matthew Lutheran Church.
The town annexed the nearly 52-acre undeveloped property, bordered by Moores Mill Road and Churchville Road, in 2010, and Jones was seeking approval to build on the northwest corner, off Moores Mill and close to Southampton Middle School.
Bel Air Planning Director Kevin Small told commission members town staff had recommended denial of Jones' subdivision plan because 27 of the proposed 48 lots are "within or touching" the 100-year floodplain boundary.
Town code does not allow housing to be built within a floodplain. Small also noted the proposed building site is near an area inhabited by the fringed gentian wildflower, a threatened species protected by the state, and the building would disturb it.
Finally, Small said building in a floodplain could hurt the town's rating through the National Floodplain Insurance Program/Community Rating System, lessening discounts for homeowners who purchase federal flood insurance.
"It's quite a bit of impact or encumbrance on the property, as far as the wetlands and the floodplain," Small explained.
Jones challenged the staff findings point by point, and outlined a proposal to fill in and elevate the areas in the floodplain boundary, which is set by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, and dig out several inches at an alternate location on the property, away from the townhouse community, to offset flooding impacts by giving floodwaters another area to collect.
"We're going to fill in, and we're going to move that storage capacity to the other side," he said.
Jones also told the commission he is seeking conditional approval for a Wetlands Waterways Construction Permit from the state.
By filling in and moving the storage capacity, Jones said the elevation change would cause the 100-year floodplain boundary to be moved back far enough from the proposed site to allow building.
"It's all about solving problems here," he said. "Whatever the issue is, we'll fix it and move on."
Commission members and other town officials present were taken aback by Jones' contention that the floodplain boundary could be shifted.
"The official floodplain line is where it's located and until FEMA relocates it, it is where it is," Town Attorney Charlie Keenan said.
Planning Commission member Donald Coates added:" If Mike's interpretation is, he can come in and backfill enough to move the floodplain line so the building structure is not in the floodplain anymore he has, in effect, moved the line."
Small stressed Jones could not move the floodplain line on his own.
"FEMA establishes the line," he said. "It's never the applicant."
Planning Commission Chairman Phil Raub endeavored to "err on the side of caution."
"To me it comes down to a fundamental thing of, to permit building in a floodplain and I would just be inclined to err on the side of caution and not do that," he said.
Raub called for a motion to approve or deny the application, and Coates initially motioned for approval, but no one seconded.
Commission member Keith Powell motioned to deny, and his motion was approved 4-1, with Coates casting the dissenting vote.
Raub said Jones could bring an alternate plan before the Planning Commission, however.
"If he comes up with a different plan, we'll hear him out," Raub said.
Jones declined to comment immediately after the meeting.
Earlier in the week, the Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners approved an amendment to the town's Development Regulations, setting a maximum of six townhouse units in a building block, with up to eight permitted with Planning Commission approval.
There remains some question in the Town Board's action will affect development of the St. Matthew project. The plan rejected by the Planning Commission Thursday called for groups of eight townhouses.
Town Board members, however, denied any linkage between the development code change and the St. Matthew project. When the passed the change on Monday night, the put a start date of Oct. 1, citing the pending approval of that particular development, as one town commissioner said the timing of the change appeared to be "unfair to St. Matthew."