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Churchville residents mobilize to fight proposed Regent at Stone House wedding venue

For the past week, Fred Ford's yard has been a headquarters of sorts for opposition to The Regent at Stone House, a wedding venue his neighbors across the street want to build on Churchville's Glenville Road.

Sitting at a table where he hands out fliers, his property covered with signs saying, "Save Ag Land in Churchville," "No Regent at Stone House" and "Honk No for Party Barn," Ford has tried to get the word out to neighbors in advance of Wednesday's community input meeting on the proposal for the barn-like hall at 517 Glenville Road.

Ford, who has lived across from the property for 31 years, said Sunday he has handed out anti-Regent fliers to a steady stream of people for about five days.

"We just don't want it to change, and that is the most important message I am trying to send," he said about the agricultural land. "We would like it to stay just the way it is."

The 8,853-square-foot barn, along with roughly 100 to 120 parking spaces, would be built on the 51-acre property owned by Timothy and Lisa Limberger. A community input meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. today (Wednesday) at Harford Community College's Chesapeake Center.

Ford has been the most visible opponent of the project, but many other neighbors of the Limberger property are also angry about what they see as an attempt to sneak a commercial venue into an area zoned for agriculture.

Signs urging "No to The Regent at Stone House" line numerous properties along Glenville Road.

John Gessner, the owners' lawyer, says the project will be a simple barn that would be used almost exclusively for weddings and will fit in with the neighborhood, the neighbors' claims to the contrary.

Asked about the residents' accusations that the project is incompatible with agricultural uses, Gessner replied: "We disagree. We think it's completely consistent."

Gessner said it makes no difference, from a land use standpoint, if a wedding venue looks like a barn or an existing barn was converted into a wedding site.

He said his clients did everything right and consulted with the county's Department of Planning and Zoning in advance.

The owners will be required to comply with stormwater management regulations and legally address any concerns about impact on wells or aquifers, Gessner said.

The neighbors aren't mollified by such explanations.

"They are building a catering hall that looks like a barn. They are not taking a barn and turning it into a catering hall," Ford said.

Many also said it would set a precedent for other agricultural land in Harford County.

"It's going to be huge," Rachel Gujral said about the proposed venue, while stopping by Ford's table Sunday afternoon. "They are going to cram as many events as they can to make ends meet."

Gujral and other residents said their narrow country road, which has no shoulders, cannot handle the additional volume of traffic.

Other farms with retail functions, such as Broom's Bloom Dairy in Bel Air, are working farms that sell a product related to their farm, residents said.

The Regent at Stone House proposal "is a straight-up commercial venue," Paul Gujral said.

On Sunday afternoon, the Gujrals were among several people who stopped by Ford's table and umbrella stand. Many drivers also honked as they passed by his property.

One of the curious neighbors was Paul Amrhein, who said he moved his family to Churchville this spring from Perry Hall, where he grew up.

He said he does not want to see the type of "overdevelopment" that he said characterizes Perry Hall.

"This is exactly what we wanted to move away from," Amrhein said, adding that any more houses or commercial projects mean "the dominoes start to fall."

"It just brings more traffic into the neighborhood," he said.

Edna Hirsch, another neighbor, added that Broom's Bloom is on a road that also has commercial uses, Route 543. Glenville is not the same kind of road.

"It's like comparing apples to grapes," she said. "There's no ifs, ands or butts about it. It's a huge catering facility."

"It has nothing to do with agriculture," she continued. "It's what I would consider a mockery of agriculture."

Hirsch said the property had been farmed for wheat by its previous owners, the Acker family.

The Limbergers bought the property from Carolyn G. Acker in December 2013, according to state property tax records. The purchase price was $1,550,000.

Priscilla Eissinger, who lives next to the Limberger property, pointed out the size of the venture and the number of parking spaces proposed.

"The problem is not about the aesthetics, the problem is about the use," she said. "That does not maintain or promote the rural character of the land."

Hirsch, who has lived in her Glenville Road home for 20 years, said neighbors are also concerned about the impact on their wells, aquifer and runoff from the project.

"There is nothing right about this," she said.

Ford recalled at least a couple of similar battles the neighborhood has fought against developments, including a proposal to rezone a corner of Glenville Road and Route 155 for an auto business that was defeated at least a decade ago.

With the Regent at Stone House, "I disagree with the fact that they are using the law that they are using to put in a business that, everywhere else in the county requires an exception," Ford said. "I don't think that a catering business is directly related to agriculture, especially [when] all the other caterers who are privately owned have commercial property, they have appropriate entrance and exit."

"The next issue after that is the safety and the value of the homes in the neighborhood," he said. "There is no precedent, in my opinion, that a commercial retail venue of any kind improves the residential value of the people around it."

Gessner, the lawyer for the owners, said he believes the idea behind the county's law on ag commercial use, which now allows private parties and receptions as special developments, is to enable ag owners to raise money to preserve their large ag parcels.

"I think this law is clear," he said, adding that the owners "have not done anything wrong."

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