Planning Board denies proposal for Royal Farms on Snowden River

The Howard County Planning Board has voted down a proposal for a Royal Farms on Columbia's Snowden River Pkwy

Citing traffic, safety and long-term planning concerns, Howard County's Planning Board voted Thursday night to deny a development proposal for a Royal Farms gas station and convenience store in an industrial area along Snowden River Parkway in Columbia.

The long-debated request from the Maryland-based chain to build a 20-pump fueling station, a 3,500-square-foot convenience mart and a Canton Car Wash on a 3.8-acre site near the intersection of Snowden River and Minstrel Way drew staunch opposition from local business owners and some community members, who argued the development violated zoning requirements for the industrial park and would increase traffic on an already congested road.

Columbia Association, the homeowners' association that represents Columbia's 10 villages, also came out against the proposal. In testimony at the Planning Board's last hearing, in mid-September, CA President Milton Matthews said the organization's board "firmly believes allowing this applicant access to Snowden River Parkway will undermine decades of careful planning."

Representatives of Royal Farms argued that the business would encourage revitalization along the corridor and help reduce Columbia's gas prices, which a 2014 study commissioned by the company found were higher than elsewhere in Maryland.

In a 4-1 vote Oct. 8, the Planning Board decided to side with community concerns about safety along the parkway.

Board Chairman Josh Tzuker said he had doubts about traffic flow, noting two expert witnesses called in by the groups opposed to the project who testified the increased traffic – and a controversial right in/right out access point feeding directly onto Snowden River – would create dangerous conditions.

"We have to err on the side of caution," Tzuker said.

Opening a Royal Farms and car wash along the parkway, which is traveled by about 35,000 cars per day, would be "adding so much more to what's already an issue," said board member Erica Roberts.

"We come on this board to look out for the community," board member Jacqueline Easley said. "Safety for me, as a mother, is very important."

Bill Santos, the only board member to vote in favor of the proposal, said congestion already exists on the parkway and that he didn't think the businesses would greatly worsen the situation.

Santos drew an analogy to the Exxon on the corner of Little Patuxent Parkway and Sterrett Place near where he lives in Columbia, which is also located along a busy road and has a direct access point onto a parkway.

"I have to say, I've never once heard that if Exxon at Sterrett Place was gone, traffic would be easier," Santos said.

Board member Phil Engelke, an architect, focused on future plans for the parkway. He noted planners are trying to move away from highways punctuated by access points for each individual business, as is the case along Route 40 and Route 1. Allowing an access point directly onto Snowden River – which only one business, a Wegmans grocery store, has obtained – "is not a very progressive solution to a very difficult problem," he said.

An attorney for Royal Farms, Sang Oh, declined to comment on the Planning Board's decision.

Royal Farms could submit a new plan for review by the county's Department of Planning and Zoning or the company could appeal the Planning Board's decision to the Howard County Hearing Examiner.

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