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Community expresses opposition to Soma apartment development

Heavy EngineeringHotel and Accommodation IndustryManufacturing and EngineeringMaryland State Police

Residents of the communities surrounding a Bel Air area property made it clear Wednesday they do not favor the 258-unit apartment complex proposed for the site.

"This is a huge negative impact on our quality of life," said Mike Pons, whose family owns and operates Country Life Farm, just across Route 1 from where the development is planned near Old Joppa Road.

Pons was one of several people who spoke against approving the site plan for six apartment buildings on 17.7 acres, formerly part of the historic Mt. Soma Farm, when the plan was reviewed by the members of Harford County's Development Advisory Committee on Wednesday.

Sixty acres of Mt. Soma were secured by the county during the 1990s to develop into a park, and the remaining nearly 18 acres is zoned B3 for business or heavy residential use. The hilly, wooded site has already seen some activity, with intense grading taking place to obtain fill dirt for other projects.

Members of the Pons family, known for breeding thoroughbred horses, as well as residents of neighboring communities and those who follow development issues in Harford County, objected to the project.

Developer and contract purchaser Klein Enterprises of Owings Mills plans to build the apartments on one lot and about 3,000 square feet of commercial space on a second lot. The property is currently owned by Michael Euler Sr. of Fallston.

Wednesday's hearing focused on the residential aspect; the commercial lot would be subject to a separate hearing before the county review panel.

Developers have also proposed replacing the blinking yellow traffic signal at Route 1 and Old Joppa Road with a standard red, yellow and green signal, with Old Joppa being extended north into the development and becoming the access point for the apartments.

Stephen Gorski of Bohler Engineering of Towson presented the site plan and said a traffic study was recently completed and must be submitted to the State Highway Administration. Gorski said the intersection "warrants a signal."

Rich Zeller, who represents the SHA on DAC, said the state reviewed traffic analyses for the intersection in 2007 and noted "the scope of the project has changed considerably" in the past six years. A number of developers previously have sought approval to build on the site over the years and faced stiff community opposition.

Zeller deferred making any comments on the traffic signal pending a review of this applicant's traffic analysis.

Intersection issues

Paul Kuck, who has lived near the Bel Air Acres subdivision near the intersection of Route 1 and Old Joppa since the early 1970s, said he was part of a local committee in the '70s which worked with the Maryland State Police on traffic issues along that stretch of Route 1.

He told committee members Wednesday that the yellow flashing light should remain at the intersection, one of a few intersections in Harford County with just a flashing signal.

Kuck explained that a standard traffic signal could lead to a greater number of rear-end crashes because of limited sight distance on the hilly section of highway.

"It still is a dangerous intersection and the people of Bel Air Acres are very concerned about the impact of what a stoplight at that intersection will cause," he said.

A number of Pons family members, including farm operators Mike and his brother, Josh, Josh's wife, Ellen and Mike's son, David, spoke against the project, citing traffic safety issues and the risk of having hundreds of new vehicles on the road, as well as the impact to local water quality.

"That's a pretty dangerous road right now," Mike Pons said of Route 1. "I'm worried for the safety of my family and my neighbors."

Ellen Pons, who is Mike Pons' sister-in-law, said the new traffic study should take into account the development which has come to the area since the 2007 traffic study, including the opening of a Walmart in Fallston, new housing development on nearby Harford Road and the former Fallston General Hospital site.

"It seems to me we're going to need an intensive traffic study," she said.

'Ship has sailed'

Josh Pons, who said he hopes to pass on to his offspring a farm that has been in the family since the 1930s, questioned the B3 zoning designation.

"It's discouraging that the county would contemplate approval of a plan this mammoth for a mixed rural-residential area that currently has sort of a quality to it that's hard to express," he said.

Ellen Pons echoed the need to down-zone the property, but Committee Chairman Moe Davenport said "that ship has sailed when they zoned the property."

"That doesn't mean the county's not concerned about preserving the property," Davenport added.

David Pons, who is Mike Pons' son, said he is concerned for the impact on local schools and the loss of a scenic piece of land. "Once it's gone, it's gone," he said.

Water quality

Committee members Patrick Jones, representing the county's Soil Conservation District, and Darryl Ivins, representing the Division of Water and Sewer, expressed concerns about having an updated topographical plan, and the impact on water service, respectively.

Julie Mackert of the county Health Department was also concerned about the impact on water quality, since local water provider Maryland American has an intake pipe in nearby Winters Run. The MT. Soma site is within the watershed of Winters Run, a major supplier of water to Bel Air.

The historic Graystone Lodge, adjacent to the commercial lot along Route 1, could be affected by the development, but Ken Beyer, managing partner of the lodge property, said he is working with Klein Enterprises to create appropriate ingress and egress to the lodge through the lot.

He said he and his partners will seek county approval to create offices in the stone lodge.

"It's a beautiful building," Beyer said. "It's probably one of the oldest buildings in the county."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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