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Whalen eyes development without Spring Grove land

Baltimore County Planning Board Chairman Scott Phillips and members Cathy Wolfson and Wayne McGinnis listen to testimony during a public hearing at Lansdowne High School March 3.
Baltimore County Planning Board Chairman Scott Phillips and members Cathy Wolfson and Wayne McGinnis listen to testimony during a public hearing at Lansdowne High School March 3. (Rachael Pacella / Staff Photo)

Even without purchasing part of the Spring Grove Hospital Center property, Whalen Properties may have enough land for a mixed-use development if the company gets the zoning change it is asking for, developer Steve Whalen said March 4.

The proposal would change 14.75 acres of residential and residential/office land to "business major," defined by the county as "large-scale, more intensive commercial." When combined with a piece of land already zoned "business major" that's owned by Whalen Properties, there's enough there for a development, Whalen said.

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"If Spring Grove never happens, this would be a viable development project on its own," Whalen said.

The mixed-use development would focus on office space, Whalen said, but could include hotels, retail, residential and other businesses to make it a "destination."

"We think that a quality restaurant component is very important, and an entertainment component is also important," Whalen said.

According to Whalen, the company either owns or is under contract with five of the six properties that would be impacted by the zoning change. The company is negotiating with the final owner, he said.

The county's planning department has recommended the change.

Since 2004 Whalen Properties has been planning a large mixed-use development next to the University of Maryland Baltimore County called "the Promenade." That project included the use of state land, the acquisition of which is uncertain.

So, Whalen is concentrating on the property the company owns, he said.

The zoning change has been requested through the county's yearlong Comprehensive Zoning Map Process, which occurs every four years and in which any person can ask for a change to a zoned property.

Residents had their first chance to testify for or against proposed zoning changes at a public hearing March 3 in front of the county's Planning Board. The board will then make recommendations to the County Council, which holds its own public hearing in June before a final vote in September.

Many residents who spoke against Whalen's zoning request tied their opposition to Spring Grove — they didn't want to see the hospital grounds turned into a development, they said.

Some attacked the developer's character.

"I see that this is opening a door for him; he has a track record of bad behavior when it comes to campaign finance regulations," resident Rebecca Dongarra said.

In 2013 Whalen pleaded guilty to illegally funneling money to County Councilman Tom Quirk's campaign and exceeding political contribution limits. He received a $53,000 fine and one year of probation, according to court records. Quirk was not accused of any wrongdoing.

Court documents show in February he submitted a petition for an expungement of the record. As of March 7, court records in that case were no longer available on the state's website.

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At the public hearing another item got considerable attention — Matthews 1600 in Catonsville has asked for a business local designation.

Matthews 1600 is on land currently zoned residential, and is requesting a business local zoning so it can add a porch, according to owner Lori Parsons. The 154-year-old building is grandfathered into its use as a restaurant because its use as a business predates zoning regulations.

Parsons said she wants to keep the restaurant fresh so it can remain competitive; her neighbors are concerned about noise, and that if the property were to be sold, a larger business could move in.

"You learn after all these years that you have to keep things new, keep things updated to keep people interested," Parsons said. "If you don't make changes, you wind up turning into a funeral home."

Lindsay Ferrara, who lives at Frederick Road and Montrose Road with her husband and 1-year-old, said: "They do in fact impact our quality of life, whether they realize it or not. In the four short months I've lived catty-corner to Matthews, I've been awoken five separate times by Matthews activity."

She is concerned, in the short term, that the zoning change will make the noise and traffic in the area worse, she said. In the long term, she's concerned that the business designation will allow something like a fast-food chain to open there if the property is sold.

"I know that's certainly not their intention — they intend to be long-term owners — but we have to think about what is possible," Ferrara said. "I just ask that you try to keep the charm in Catonsville."

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