A group of Clarksville residents have long believed that River Hill Garden Center owner Steve Klein pulled a "bait and switch" on the Howard County Council and community when he requested a change in his property's zoning from residential to business.
Yet it might not have been a bait and switch at all from the County Council's perspective. In an Oct. 14 meeting between River Hill residents, a county attorney and council members Mary Kay Sigaty and Greg Fox, all three county officials said the council, acting as the Zoning Board, knew the potential outcomes of its decision when it voted to grant business zoning to the property in May 2011.
Sigaty, Fox and county zoning counsel Eileen Powers attended the meeting at the request of River Hill residents, who reiterated their concerns that new development on the garden center lot will bring lights, noise and extra traffic to the community.
Community members said they felt duped when Klein's plan for a small, deli-style café turned into a proposal to add a bank and two restaurants to the triangular lot, in addition to maintaining the garden center.
"It's not a new objection," River Hill resident Mike Cornell said of the neighbors' concerns. "Mr. Klein has begged and promised in order to get the community to agree to things he wants to do."
Cornell is a River Hill Village Board member, although he said he spoke only for himself. The River Hill Village Board has written several letters in opposition to the changed zoning.
For resident Frank Nezu, the biggest threat was worsened traffic.
"This is already a tremendous problem," he said. "[Development] is going to make things 10 times worse. It's going to lower everyone's property values."
Klein has said he needs to expand in order to support his garden center business in the off-season as well as fund State Highway Administration-mandated road improvements.
At the meeting, about a dozen River Hill residents urged Sigaty, who represents River Hill in District 4, to use an obscure loophole that would permit her to appeal the garden center's zoning. She responded that she would not revisit the case and that further requests to reconsider the zoning would be a waste of time.
Both Fox, who voted against awarding business zoning to the garden center, and Sigaty said the council knew Klein would have all the rights and options accorded to any property owner of a business zone when it made its decision in 2011.
"Our attorneys remind us all the time that whatever that zone is, that's what you're allowing," Fox said. As a proponent of property rights, he said reversing course on the Zoning Board's decision could set a dangerous precedent.
"We are here now; we're not there anymore," he said.
Powers, who attended the meeting to offer non-case-specific legal advice to the River Hill residents, said that developers change their minds "all the time.
"This is typical," she said. "They say it will just be small and then they come in and do something bigger."
Powers said she didn't think an appeal of the center's business zoning would stand up in court.
Sigaty said she would like to work with the State Highway Administration to see if the county could find a way to reduce some of the burden of the road improvement fees on the garden center.
"The real big problem is that he has, in fact, a cost that he was not anticipating at all," she said. Lowering that cost "would give the Kleins more of an opportunity to develop what they want to do."
River Hill residents now plan to dispute Klein's variance requests for the property, which include a 7-foot setback from a cemetery and a 10.5-foot setback from the Linden-Linthicum United Methodist Church's property line. Nezu said the decreased setbacks "add insult to injury."
The first variance case for the garden center will come before the county's hearing examiner on Dec. 12, with Dec. 16 as a possible continuation date.