The Howard County Planning Board, in a 3-0 vote Thursday, approved the preliminary sketch plan for a 220-home development to be built on the Wincopia Farms property off Gorman Road, in North Laurel.
Wincopia Farms was owned by the Hearn family for more than 200 years until it was foreclosed on in 2007. The 128-acre property is now owned by Gourley and Gourley, a Virginia-based private lending company.
The Hearns lost their property after they failed to pay a $13 million debt to Gourley and Gourley, which had offered the Hearns a high-interest loan, using their valuable land as collateral. The Hearns spent years in a legal battle with Gourley and Gourley trying to reclaim their property.
Gourley and Gourley plans to build 171 single-family detached homes and 49 single-family attached homes on 43 acres of the property.
The property is currently covered by 72 acres of forest, 39 of which will be retained as a part of the development. The remaining acreage will be used for open space.
The proposed development has upset some nearby residents, a few of whom spoke before the Planning Board June 7.
"I hate this plan. ... I hate everything about this project," North Laurel resident Judy George said.
George said a 220-home development is not appropriate for the area, where schools are already overcrowded.
"I would really like to see something else entirely done with this property, (though) I don't know what," she said.
Wincopia Farms is located opposite Gorman Crossing Elementary and Murray Hill Middle schools, both of which are considered over capacity, according to the school system.
With Planning Board approval of the preliminary sketch plan, the developers will now go through county tests that will determine whether new schools or road improvements are needed to accommodate the development.
The developers appear to be planning that children living in the new homes will be attending Gorman Crossing and Murray Hill, as they are proposing to build a pedestrian tunnel that will cut under Gorman Road and connect with the schools.
"This eliminates the need for a crossing guard in perpetuity," said Carl Gutschick, the civil engineer on the project.
North Laurel resident Jacquie Sentell said she believes the developers are "overextending the use of the R-ED (residential zoning district)." She is concerned about the farmlands in the southeast.
To build the new homes, the developers will knocking down the existing house, greenhouses and other structures on the property.
Sentell said the house on the property should be preserved, even though it's not on the historic register.
"If they're not going to be preserving the area around it, then I suggest they move this home somewhere else," she said.
Savage resident Myra Phelps, who said she grew up near Wincopia Farms, added: "A bulldozer does not protect anything that has to do with anything that's historic."
In particular, Phelps is concerned about Gorman remaining a scenic road.
"This is probably the 30th time I've been in front of various boards about the scenic road that should not be changed," she said.
Gutschick said the developers have worked with the county to design improvements to Gorman Road that will create safer conditions but not affect its status as a scenic road.
"What was resolved on this is that the hairpin turn … is being smoothed out," he said, adding that "the lanes where they're substandard are being widened slightly."
The rural character of the road will be retained, Gutschick said, as they are not proposing to add curbs, gutters or storm drains.
Phelps also noted that she heard from the Hearn family that there are two or three family graves on the property.
Gutschick said he and others on the development team have walked the site several times and have never found any evidence of graves.
When looking at preliminary sketch plans, the Planning Board is charged with ensuring they meet three criteria: that environmental and historical resources are protected, grading is limited and neighboring properties are buffered from the development.
"They've met that criteria," board Chairman Dave Grabowski said. He explained that the developer's plans protect the environmental resources related to the nearby Middle Patuxent River, limit grading by placing the homes on the higher, flat part of the property and buffers the development from other properties with existing forest and other planned foliage.
Board member Bill Santos agreed that the plan meets the criteria, but added: "I can understand people's emotions with respect to Wincopia."