After weeks of radio ads, a phone campaign and the threat of legal action, the long-awaited The Lofts at Eastport Landing public meeting begins Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Annapolis City Council chambers.
Scheduled by Planning and Zoning Director Pete Gutwald, the meeting is an opportunity to discuss a core issue surrounding the controversial project: its density.
Opponents of the mixed-use development at the Eastport Shopping Center — which comes with 127 apartment units along with commercial and retail space — believe it is too dense and undermines the character of the Eastport neighborhood. They also assert the calculations used to reach that density were done so incorrectly.
Supporters of the project believe it would provide a big boost to Eastport, especially a shopping center that could use the help. A defunct movie theater has sat vacant for years without a replacement.
The goal of Thursday's meeting is to hear concerns about the project's density and gather information from all sides, Gutwald said.
"I would like everybody's comments and presentation to focus on that topic," he said. "I'll take it and make a decision based on the information we have."
"I don't plan on making a decision that night."
The Lofts at Eastport Landing has been in active development since September 2016, when its initial application was submitted to the city. Baltimore-based Solstice Partners is the developer of the project. The developer says the project has been in planning for three years.
It has been a controversial project since its inception. Developers met with the community hoping to allay those concerns.
The success of those meetings depends on who is asked, but what became apparent throughout those meetings was a highly focused frustration on the number of apartments set to be built on 2 acres of the 6.75 acre property.
A group of Eastport residents formed a "working group" that examined the density of the project and came to the conclusion that its density was not correctly calculated. Annapolis has laws that dictate how many residential units an apartment building can have based on the size of the property and the type of development.
That working group, in an opinion submitted to the city, disputed the calculations used for the current iteration of the project.
"The Developer's approach to density calculation is flawed," the group wrote in its findings. "They should be required to make adjustments and follow the statutory provisions for Special Mixed Planned Development as they move forward."
This move led to a legal arms race as both the city and the developers hired third-party counsel to release legal opinions on the issue. The developer's legal opinion sided with its density calculations and documents were provided that showed Gutwald had initially agreed with the developers density calculations.
The city's legal opinion took more of a middle-ground position between the working group and developer's attorney. The density calculations were more nuanced when considering which portions of the property are used for residential purposes and nonresidential purposes, alluding to the project likely having to scale back its unit count.
As those opinions became public, acting City Attorney Ashley Leonard said any one of the legal opinions could be correct because the city's law is so vague.
It's up to the planning director to decide, she said.
These opinions led to the cancellation of a Planning Commission work session on the project and the scheduling of Thursday's meeting — a move that angered the developers, who felt that the city was going back on previous comments that the density had been calculated correctly. The developer sent a strongly worded letter alluding to a potential lawsuit.
And leading up to the meeting, the developers called upon supporters of the project to contact Alderman Ross Arnett, D-Ward 8, as well as taking out a radio ad and organizing phone calls to area residents.
In that radio ad, Mayor Mike Pantelides, a Republican, and Arnett are accused of hashing out a backroom deal. Arnett denied such a deal took place.
That radio ad comment was referencing a conversations and emails shared between Gutwald, Pantelides and Arnett "outside the process," said Jeff Jacobson, principal of Solstice Partners.
"They aren't following the code," Jacobson said. "We are going to participate in the meeting; we are going to come and talk to the community. ... Clearly we want to hear from the community, ... but it is not part of the process."
These radio ads and phone calls are a first, Arnett said. Even when the controversial Crystal Spring project was at its height of acrimony, it wasn't this intense.
Arnett plans to speak at the meeting, with his comments to come down on the side of the project being too dense. He also says that he plans to use the developer's own language against them.
He was working on those comments Wednesday.
It's the alderman's job to uphold the City Charter and code, Arnett said.
"As I've said in every public forum, I have an opinion on this, but my opinion doesn't count," Arnett said. "I'm here to help guide the process and make sure it is being done properly."