A group of North Laurel residents said they'd like to hear more about plans to develop the old Laurel Dodge site into a Royal Farms, even if it means changing the zoning laws created to revitalize U.S. 1.
Royal Farms is considering purchasing nearly three acres on North Washington Boulevard between Davis and Madison avenues to build new convenience store that would include gas pumps and a car wash, employing 20 full-time workers.
But before the company could redevelop the space, it would need a change in the zoning laws for the area, created to spruce up the aging corridor and facilitate new mixed-use development. Others in the neighborhood are reluctant to depart from that vision.
"We understand their concerns. It doesn't meet all of their plans for Route 1. We're just offering it out there," Tom Meachum, an attorney representing Royal Farms, said after a Tuesday meeting with the North Laurel Civic Association members.
The area's zoning laws are intended to increase green space and improve walkability, and shift development away from single-use properties, such as the existing hodgepodge of gas stations, motels and used-car lots along the busy road. The plan instead encourages multistory, multipurpose buildings placed against wide sidewalks lined with trees for a more urban streetscape.
"Basically, zoning doesn't allow gas stations," in that area of U.S. 1, said Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the county's department of planning and zoning. The land was zoned in an area for mixed-use, multistory buildings, which would exclude a new gas station.
"[The company] has a difficult argument to make," McLaughlin said. Royal Farms would have to convince the county that it made a mistake when it adopted zoning that prohibits the project.
But many residents said they would welcome an interested tenant, especially one that would give them another, closer option to pick up a jug of milk or loaf of bread, instead of trekking out to a full-service grocery store.
An added appeal for some residents was the large patch of open land that Royal Farms included in a preliminary plan.
"There is something nice about green space," said Tom Flynn, a resident who spoke out in favor of the plan.
Another North Laurel resident, Steve Hunt, said he might like to see something other than a gas station and store at the site, but "perfection is the envy of the good." Given the slow development in the area, he said, it's good to see something new being proposed.
County Councilwoman Jennifer Terrasa, who also attended the meeting, said, "We need to take a closer look at the [zoning] plan … to see what folks are looking for in 2011." The plan was written in 2001.
She mentioned the Ashbury Courts development, also on U.S. 1, which has apartments above commercial space on street level. The apartments, which boast "Upscale Living. Downtown Style. Right in Laurel," has attracted renters, but the commercial space meant attract smaller businesses such as coffee shops has not fared as well.
A handful of residents expressed concerns over the plans, saying a gas station will not generate revitalization desired among the businesses densely packed along the roadside. Some residents also expressed concerns over traffic from the store and wondered whether the store would push out any locally owned businesses.
"It's important for the community to support this," said Jeff Bainbridge, director of real estate for Royal Farms. He added that the company has not yet purchased the property and plans are preliminary.
Meachum said if the community is in favor of a Royal Farms, the company would then file a petition with the county to make changes to the law. That move would need County Council and planning board approval.
Meachum said the store would seek to change the law to restrict other gas stations to meet a minimum one-third green space and limited to spaces with a minimum of two acres.
Bainbridge said there are fewer than half a dozen Royal Farms stores in Howard County, although there is one about three miles north in Jessup.