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News Maryland Howard County Columbia

Small Columbia project could make big waves, opponents say

On paper, the plan for a car maintenance shop and a few stores on Snowden River Parkway in Columbia hardly seems worth fighting about. The business people opposing it, however, see it as an illegal first step toward drastic changes for the worse along some major roads, and a potential threat to businesses in Columbia's nine village centers. 

"We just feel it was an illegal rezoning," says Christopher Alleva, president of the Howard County Independent Business Association, one of five parties fighting the Planning Board's decision to allow a revision to the project called Minstrel Crossing II.

Opponents say it would violate code restrictions barring the sort of retail stores that the developer, H&H Rock of Elkridge, wants to build on about two acres in the complex that now includes a bank and two hotels.

Association members Brian England and Amran Pasha, who own businesses near the complex, argue that if this proposal is approved, the decision could open up Snowden River Parkway and other roads like it to commercial development they were not designed to accommodate, violating the county's new master plan for growth, and agreements made with Columbia property owners years ago. 

"It goes against the whole concept of Columbia as a planned community," says England, owner of British American Auto Care Inc.

Mark L. Levy, president of H&H Rock, declines to discuss his project or these claims, except to suggest that the opponents' case is weak, as the county's hearing examiner dismissed the case this month after hearing the opponents' arguments and before hearing his lawyer's presentation.

One of the opponents, the manager of the two hotels, settled their differences with the developer, which agreed to limit hours and put up more screening between the hotels and the planned AAA car service center. The other opponents plan to take their challenge next to the Board of Appeals, says their lawyer, Nichole M. Galvin.

The business association also has asked the Howard Hughes Corp. — successor to the company that originally sold the land to a developer in 1972 — to examine the property deed, claiming this revision of Minstrel Crossing would violate a restriction against retail development.

The Planning Board in May voted 3-1 to allow a revision including two buildings to a previously approved plan. A report to the board from the Department of Planning and Zoning said the proposal meets the requirements of the "manufacturing-light" zoning, as it includes "restaurant, retail and vehicle service uses."

The opponents are challenging the approval on several counts, some procedural and others claiming the plans violate the county's rules. Beyond the specific terms of their appeal, though, they argue that this project could set a bad precedent for the area.

Pasha, who owns an Exxon station across from the Minstrel Crossing site, argues that the industrial zoning of this land also exists along hundreds of acres on such thoroughfares as Snowden River Parkway, McGaw Road, Dobbin Road and Oakland Mills Road. If retail stores are allowed at Minstrel Crossing — closer to the roadway than the shopping centers that now exist on Snowden River Parkway — they could also be allowed elsewhere, allowing these roads to look less like parkways and more like, say, Rockville Pike.

England says that's not what Snowden River Parkway was meant to be.

"It's not a place where you drive along at 13 miles an hour stopping and doing shopping," says England, who opened his car repair shop in 1978 at a different location from where it is now, about a quarter mile from the Minstrel Crossing site.

England says he followed Columbia's rules years ago, opening his service garages off the main drag, his most recent location in an industrial park near Snowden River Parkway. Now, he says, the rules have changed, giving H&H Rock the right to build an AAA service center in a more prominent location right on the parkway.

"I've lived in Columbia 39 years," England says. "I've bought into this concept, not just as a resident but as a business owner."

Both he and Pasha say retail stores along major thoroughfares could pose a threat to Columbia's nine village centers, as they're "tucked away" in less prominent spots, as Pasha puts it. He says about 70 percent of the business association's members do business in the village centers.

Gregory Reed, director of acquisitions and development for Kimco Realty, which owns six of the nine centers, says he hasn't followed the Minstrel Crossing case, but says, "I can understand that argument" the opponents are making. He says new stores on major thoroughfares close to village centers could potentially draw business away. He also wonders whether the plans would violate the county's general plan for growth.

Indeed, the opponents claim that. They point to a provision in PlanHoward2030 that makes it a policy for the county to "continue to enhance the vitality and redevelopment of Columbia's village centers." They also point to another section saying planners "need to consider the impact that increased development along Snowden River Parkway would have on Columbia and its village centers," although this section refers to "redevelopment," not new projects built on open land.

While the report from the Department of Planning and Zoning says the project complies with the rules, the opponents disagree. They argue that the zoning category cited in the report only allows retail stores that serve the employees of businesses in the industrial park, not the general public, and only for projects of 200 acres or more. They also say the original development plan for the land bars retail stores.

So does the deed on the property, Alleva argues. Originally filed in 1972, when an affiliate of Columbia's developer, the Rouse Company, sold the land to a Virginia company, the deed says the land cannot be used for or "in connection with any other property as a shopping center or a retail sales establishment."

Alleva, Pasha and England met last week with Bob Jenkins, the director of engineering and construction for the Howard Hughes Corp., asking him to check into the deed restriction. Jenkins says in an interview that he would research the question, but he says the corporation has no authority to order a property owner to abide by terms of a deed. He says he could only caution an owner of potential legal complications of violating a deed restriction.

Galvin, the lawyer representing the appellants, says the remaining opponents will pursue the challenge to the Board of Appeals, and may ask Hearing Examiner Michele LeFaivre to reconsider her dismissal, depending on what the written opinion says. Either way, they'll have to wait for the written ruling.

The Minstrel Crossing revision is small, but worth a fight, England says.

"This is not just about British American," he says, referring to his car repair business. "We love Columbia. We'd hate to see it go downhill."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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