Tucked away at the end of a residential street, around the corner from Historic Savage Mill Shopping Center and adjacent to Savage Park, is a parcel of wooded land, barely remarkable except for a small gravel pathway and a sign that announces the entrance to "RECON Outdoor Laser Tag."
Today, the parcel, at 8550 Fair Street, is 5 acres of woods whose calm is broken only by the occasional laser tagger darting between the trees.
But Jay Winer, the owner of Savage Mill LLC, hopes to transform the plot into Savage's newest neighborhood.
Winer's request to change the land's zoning from B-2 business to R-A-15 residential is one of the many proposals the County Council is expected to approve or deny on Thursday, July 25, as part of the comprehensive zoning bill, a once-a-decade opportunity for Howard County property owners to request a zoning change for any reason.
Winer's request imagines building a community whose residents "could enjoy the natural amenities of the area, with homes that overlook the river in an idyllic setting. ... With the requested rezoning, the Property would be developed to its most appropriate use while at the same time enhancing the vitality of the area."
Savage community members aren't so sure.
They are concerned development at Fair Street could endanger the community's small-town charm, natural beauty and the local environment, creating traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, polluting the river that snakes through the parcel's trees and threatening the endangered Snaketail dragonfly species that lives in its woods.
More than a dozen Savage community members testified against the proposed new neighborhood at two hearings on comprehensive zoning amendments July 15 and 16. Most said they would prefer keeping the business zoning, which has been in place for 20 years, than have the council change the zoning to residential.
Susan Garber, president of the Savage Community Association, said she and her husband, John, moved to Savage because they preferred small-town living to an urban lifestyle. The couple built their home on a wooded plot 23 years ago, "and when we built we made a real effort to save every tree," Garber said. "Our house is really tucked in there."
Through the years, Savage "has retained a nice, quaint feel," Garber said. The "5-acre donut hole being proposed for high density development, to me, is extremely inappropriate."
The town of Savage grew up around its mill, which was built in the early 1820s by John Savage to produce cotton duck. Many of the homes in the neighborhood surrounding the mill were built in the 1830s and 1840s as housing for mill workers, according to Savage's historic district documentation.
Most homes in Savage are single-family lots with large yards — "big enough to have a swing set and a little garden patch," Garber said. The highest density development in the area is the Bowling Brook apartment complex across Gorman Road.
The initial proposal for a development by The Bozzuto Group, which has a contingent contract with Savage Mill LLC to buy the 5 acres on Fair Street if it can obtain adequate residential zoning, envisioned 51 townhouses on the parcel.
In response to the community's concerns, Bozzuto recently offered to cap the number of townhouses at 40, by paying a fee instead of building the percentage of moderate income housing units required by the county.
Community members voted to reject the proposal by a 2-to-1 margin, citing continuing concerns about density and the environment. But Garber said that although Savage residents would prefer the parcel remain undeveloped, they are not absolutely opposed to change.
"We've tried to be realistic throughout, and we certainly could be accepting of some residential development if it were at the proper density to match the town," Garber said. For the community, reasonable density would be a maximum of six units per acre, or 30 units on the plot.
District 3 County Council member Jen Terrasa, who represents Savage, said she is weighing the community's concerns with her own reservations about whether retaining a business zoning for the property would be the best, and safest, use of the land.
"There are a lot of by-right uses in B-2 that concern me," Terrasa said. There are 85 by-right uses in a B-2 zone, including day care centers, hotels, funeral homes, restaurants and bulk retail stores.
Terrasa has toured the lot and proposed multiple amendments to the comprehensive zoning bill in response to the community's worries about the environment and high-density development.
"It's a treasure back there," Terrasa said.
This isn't the first time the parcel has been targeted for development. In 2007, Winer announced a deal with North Carolina-based Summit Associates to build two hotels on 10 acres near the mill, but those plans fell through.
Winer's attorney, Sang Oh, said building townhouses would be a less intense use for the property than building a hotel or business. He estimated that a townhouse community with 40 units would generate about one car every three minutes during peak traffic times.
As for the overall plan, Oh said, "We'll work with the community ... and ensure that it's done in a way that respects the historic neighborhood of Savage."
Garber said she and the rest of the community were anxiously awaiting the council's decision. When the town holds its annual ice cream social on Aug. 6, she said, "I hope we will be celebrating."