Plan to move, expand Md. Renaissance Festival met with resistance

One by one, they came to the microphone and made their case: The Maryland Renaissance Festival is fun, but it doesn't belong in a rural community.

The festival annually attracts to Crownsville about 300,000 visitors who gobble smoked turkey legs, guzzle mead and are enchanted by jousters, musicians and artisans in a replica of an English village under the reign of King Henry VIII.

Organizers say the festival has become a victim of its own success and needs more room to accommodate traffic, revelers and vendors than the 130-acre site can provide.

But a proposal to relocate and expand it to a large farm in the southern Anne Arundel community of Lothian was opposed at a hearing Thursday by residents who fear it won't prove to be a renaissance for their neighborhood.

"The festival has already outgrown its infrastructure in Crownsville. How on earth are we supposed to handle it in south county?" asked Lothian resident Ray Greenstreet.

"We're looking for elbow room, so it's not as congested," said Jules Smith, president of the company that owns the festival that has operated in Crownsville for nearly 30 years. The event runs nine weekends a year, from late August through October. Over the past 10 years, it has brought an estimated $15.8 million in sales, vendor, property and amusement taxes to Anne Arundel County.

After touring dozens of properties across Maryland, Smith thought he found a new home — a 238-acre farm in Lothian he could rent to relocate and even expand the festival. On Thursday, though, he learned that neither nearby residents nor county planners favor that idea.

The county's Office of Planning and Zoning recommended denial on the grounds that the festival, while a valuable tourist attraction, doesn't fit with the surrounding rural community in Lothian.

During the daylong hearing in Annapolis, Smith listened as farmers, gardeners, environmentalists and even a former county executive urged a hearing officer to deny zoning approvals necessary for the move. More than 100 people attended.

Nearly everyone took care to say they don't oppose the Maryland Renaissance Festival in general — they just don't want it in their backyard.

Or in the case of Sherry Warner, her front yard. Warner lives on Upper Pindell Road, across the street from the proposed festival site. She said she worries about traffic backing up on the roadways, with cars spewing emissions that might aggravate her asthma.

Person after person invoked the mantra, "Keep South County Rural," the community's slogan for years in battles against unwanted development sprawling into the county's rural zone.

Former County Executive Janet S. Owens, who was in office from 1998 through 2006, said she sees the issue from both sides. She lives in a house about two miles from the current festival in Crownsville and owns a family farm about two miles from the proposed festival site.

Owens said that Crownsville residents have adjusted to the festival in their midst and that moving to Lothian would fly in the face of decades of work to keep southern Anne Arundel quiet and rural.

"I like the Renaissance Festival. My sons go. I go. Please, Mr. Smith, do not move it," she said. "Do not move it, because all of the [current] neighbors accept it."

While most of those at the hearing were opposed to moving the festival, a handful of merchants who sell goods and artwork came in support, including one from Western Maryland and another from Virginia. They said Smith and his family are responsible and can be trusted to make the new site work for festival-goers, vendors and the neighbors.

"I have complete confidence that they know what they're doing is best for everyone," said Angela Constantino, a Churchton resident who started working at the festival two years ago after attending as a customer for many years.

The new location would allow the festival to have wider walkways, more landscaped gardens and additional room for vendors to work and display their goods, Smith said. In addition to vendor booths and entertainment stages, Smith wants to add a Royal Hall that would offer food and entertainment. The hall could also be rented for receptions.

Smith and property owner Michael Booth of Florida need a series of approvals from Anne Arundel's administrative hearing officer, who conducted Thursday's hearing.

Festivals are allowed in the county only under a special zoning exception. The festival also needs variances related to traffic and to allow it along Upper Pindell Road, which designated a scenic road.

The proposed site is near Route 4, a highway that stretches from the Capital Beltway through Southern Maryland.

Jeffrey Griffith, a nearby farmer who also heads the county's Farm Bureau, worries that festival traffic would block farmers from reaching a grain elevator down Route 4. The festival's season coincides with the grain harvest, Griffith said.

Others raised concerns about the area not having adequate firefighting and ambulance services, and some worried that visitors would follow GPS directions and wind up on back roads that lack shoulders and can't handle heavy volumes.

Hearing officer Douglas Clark Hollmann said he would rule within 30 days.

As Smith pursues the new site in Lothian, he plans to continue operating the festival in Crownsville, where he has a long-term lease. The 2014 season is scheduled to open Aug. 23 and will run weekends through Oct. 19.

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