River Hill Garden Center variance hearings begin

Several dozen residents of Clarksville's River Hill community showed up for the first two days of hearings in a case involving zoning variances for the River Hill Garden Center on Route 108.

Garden Center owner Stephen Klein is requesting two variances for the property, a 6.33 acre lot located between the pike's intersections at Linden Linthicum Lane and Sheppard Lane and down the street from River Hill High School and Clarksville Elementary.

The variances would facilitate a reconfiguration of the lot's traffic flow, which Klein says is desperately needed due to increasingly heavy congestion and poor sight lines along Route 108 that endanger the safety of customers turning left out of the garden center.

But neighbors contend that Klein's chief concern is developing the property, and worry about the impact that greater crowds drawn to the garden center lot would have on traffic and the surrounding community.

In the first two hearings, held Thursday, Dec. 12 and Monday, Dec. 16, Klein, garden center employees and traffic and engineering experts talked about traffic woes and the financial health of the business in more than eight hours of testimony.

Klein said the impetus for his two variance requests came after a traffic light was installed at the Sheppard Lane intersection in late August 2012.

"We've had this operation for more than 20 years and we have never had an accident entering or exiting the garden center until the light came in on Sheppard Lane," he told Hearing Examiner Michele LeFaivre. "That's what started this whole proposal here to exit at the light. Now, exiting our garden center at rush hour is nearly impossible… This whole submission for a variance is solely based on the safety of our customers and employees to have a light."

To address traffic concerns, Klein has proposed making the garden center's current access point a right-turn entrance only, funneling the rest of the traffic out through the intersection at Sheppard Lane by building a driveway to connect the garden center parking lot to the light.

The variances Klein has asked for would both reduce setback requirements from adjacent property.

The first variance request would permit an encroachment of 23 feet into the property's 30-foot setback from Route 108 to accommodate the construction of a retaining wall along part of the road frontage.

The second variance would allow another 23-foot encroachment at the property's northeast end, next to the Linden Linthicum United Methodist Church cemetery, to make room for a driveway connecting the garden center to the Sheppard Lane light.

Klein had initially asked for a third variance, allowing a setback reduction in the back of his property, but withdrew the request after a Department of Planning and Zoning technical staff report recommended the variance be denied.

In order to justify the variances, Klein must establish that there is a substantial need for them, that complying with current setback requirements prevent a reasonable use of his property and that the difficulties or hardships the garden center faces are unique to the property in some way, according to guidelines laid out in the DPZ report.

In cross-examination, River Hill residents opposed to the variances questioned the uniqueness of Klein's situation, noting that a Free State gas station down the road had similar traffic problems.

They also sought to link the traffic reconfiguration to Klein's plans to develop the site. In June, he presented the community with a plan that showed two restaurants and a bank on the lot, in addition to the garden center retail store.

Klein said the plan featuring the restaurants and bank represents the site's maximum development potential, and that he doesn't necessarily intend to bring in all of the businesses shown on the plan.

Nicole Woodham, the garden center's financial manager and fiancée of Klein's son, Brad Klein, said the business had suffered since the recession and was currently operating in the red.

She said the garden center "saw a huge decrease [in revenue] right after the light was installed," though community members questioned whether there might be other factors at play in the business' struggles.

Another hearing, in which variance opponents will be able to testify, is scheduled for Dec. 19. The case is likely to roll over into next year, with hearings in January or February, according to people familiar with the process.

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