It's neighbor vs. neighbor on rural Ritchie Highway

It's just the start of the evening rush, and the cars are everywhere — and going fast — outside Clarence "Sonny" Jordan's house on Ritchie Highway in Arnold.

The 87-year-old has lived here since 1932 — before Ritchie Highway was built — and has been trying for years to sell his property.

But there's a problem, he says: No one wants to buy a piece of residentially zoned property along a busy thoroughfare. So he wants to get his 51/2 acres of land rezoned from low-density residential to commercial, increasing its value and allowing for a comfortable retirement.

"I'd like to sell it and find some place warmer and move on," Jordan said.

Some of Jordan's neighbors have a competing concern. They fear that the changes sought by Jordan and more than a dozen others could fundamentally change the character of the approximately seven-mile stretch of Ritchie Highway from U.S. 50 through Arnold and Severna Park to Baltimore and Annapolis Boulevard.

They are vowing to preserve the stretch, which features a grassy median flanked with trees, and to hold at bay the mass development that is ubiquitous farther north along the roadway.

"It used to be so rural here," said Elizabeth Rosborg, a third-generation Arnold resident who lives next to Jordan.

As Anne Arundel County embarks on its once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning process, the stage is set for conflict between neighbors over their shared future along the road that runs from Baltimore to Annapolis.

About 15 landowners, including Jordan, want to ease restrictions on their properties — and set themselves up for a potential windfall. Rezoning a property from single-family residential to an apartment complex, for example, could increase its value by millions of dollars.

On the other side are preservationists such as Rosborg, who say that more commercial development will bring traffic, pollution and drainage problems — and destroy what's left of the area's rural character.

The county Office of Planning and Zoning has received 355 applications to rezone properties all over the county. Planning and zoning officials will forward their recommendations to the County Council beginning this month. The council will decide which ones to approve by the end of the year.

A spokesman for County Executive John R. Leopold said Leopold understands the concerns of both sides.

"Ritchie Highway becomes more and more commercial and retail the more north you go," spokesman Dave Abrams said. "It's also home to waterfront communities and [Anne Arundel] Community College.

"It's a diverse area. The county executive is sensitive to that. … Our goal is to balance that and to use our experts, our professional staff, to determine what's appropriate."

Rosborg lives on land purchased by her grandather in 1946. Her property, which she shares with a sibling and which has room to put up two horses, is adjacent to the Baltimore & Annapolis Trail and Jordan's property.

One of her greatest concerns about development is storm water runoff and the pollution it causes. She says the drainage system from a nearby shopping center has caused a buildup of silt in the Severn River, which abuts her property.

The Arnold Preservation Council is watching the rezoning process closely.

"We feel like it's a largely residential part of the highway and we want to keep it that way," Councilwoman Ann Fligsten said. "Some people say, 'The whole highway's going to go commercial, so get over it.' But we're a preservation council and we're going to preserve our history."

Albert R. Johnston, who heads land-use issues for the Greater Severna Park Council, said some landowners are looking to become "Ritchie Highway millionaires."

"Take a piece of residential property and get it zoned commercial and make a million bucks," he said. "That's what's going on here."

Ritchie Highway, dedicated in 1940 by Gov. Herbert R. O'Conor with floats and marching bands, is one of the busiest north-south arteries in the state.

Among the 15 applications for rezoning is a golf course seeking zoning for commercial and high-density residential, and a vacant lot that the owner wants to rezone with the potential to build an apartment tower.

The bulk of the applicants want commercial zoning. Some already operate commercial enterprises under zoning exceptions.

Opponents say they worry not necessarily about the initial impact of any zoning change, but the potential for current owners to sell the land to big-time developers without much interest in the character of the area.

Already, they say, several of the shopping and business plazas in the area have many vacancies. More commercial space, they argue, will further dilute the stock.

The rezoning process is guided by the General Development Plan adopted by the county in 2009 and the 16 small area plans.

The most recent small-area plans for Severna Park and Arnold call for residential zoning along Ritchie Highway with pockets of commercial development near major intersections.

Abrams said Leopold relies on his professional staff in Planning and Zoning to determine which applications are "consistent" with the General Development Plan.

Jordan's property, which contains three small houses, is zoned for low-density residential. Because it is bordered by two businesses — a veterinary practice and a cleaning company — he's hopeful it will be changed to commercial.

A land use consultant working for Jordan says it would be almost impossible to sell his property without such a change, because no one wants to live in an area with so much traffic and noise.

"It's just a sad story," said John Pantelides, the consultant. "These are not developers that came in yesterday and said we're gonna flip. These are people that have been there their entire lives and they just want to sell."

The Arnold Preservation Council offered to buy the property from Jordan in the hope of keeping the current zoning and building a park. They raised about $20,000 of the $1.5 million asking price. Unable to secure any county funding, they gave up the effort.

"They'd like to build a park," said Jordan. "I'd like them to build a park. Just come out with the money and let's play ball."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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