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After tense debate, Carroll County commissioners adopt comprehensive rezoning — with amendment on gas stations

Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, argued gas stations should be a conditional rather than permitted use in the C-1 zoning district at the commissioners meeting Dec. 12, 2019.
Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, argued gas stations should be a conditional rather than permitted use in the C-1 zoning district at the commissioners meeting Dec. 12, 2019. (Mary Grace Keller)

An argument over gas stations and taverns almost prevented the Carroll County commissioners from adopting parts of their comprehensive rezoning proposal Thursday.

The board convened Thursday with the intent of adopting the comprehensive rezoning for the commercial/industrial/employment campus, but the action was put on hold when Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, tried to make last-minute changes that sparked an hourlong debate.

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Rothstein wanted to change the zoning so that fuel stations, catering establishments, restaurants, drive-thrus and taverns/bars would be classified as conditional uses instead of permitted uses in the C-1 (commercial 1) zoning district.

After much debate, the board adopted the comprehensive rezoning, 4-0, including an amendment to make fuel stations conditional uses in the C-1 district — the only suggestion from Rothstein that was accepted. Richard Weaver, R-District 2, abstained from voting.

The zoning changes go into effect Dec. 22.

Carroll County’s government has been in the process of overhauling its zoning code since 2015. In the past year, commissioners and county staff have met at 10 work sessions to review the proposed changes, according to planning director Lynda Eisenberg. Citizens made their opinions known at two public hearings Oct. 3, and others submitted written comments to the commissioners. County staff and commissioners then reviewed the comments and made adjustments to the proposal.

“Not all C-1 properties are equal, just as not all parts of the county are the same,” Rothstein said at the start of the debate.

What a C-1 property looks like in Rothstein’s 5th district is “very different” from a C-1 property in another district, he said. Rothstein suggested certain businesses, such as a 24/7 operation, would be better suited to other areas away from residential living.

By switching certain uses from permitted to conditional, the public would have more of a voice in what is built in its community because then a business would have to go through a public meeting at the Board of Zoning Appeals, Rothstein said.

Under the new zoning, a gas station can be built in the C-1 district if a property owner first gets approval from the Board of Zoning Appeals to operate as a conditional use, according to zoning code. As for existing gas stations, they can continue operating but are considered nonconforming uses and thus prevented from expanding without a conditional use approval from the Board of Zoning Appeals.

Additionally, if a conditional-use property is closed for longer than two years and the owner does not apply for a one-year extension the property falls under the new zoning code, according to the code.

Commissioners clash

At the meeting, Rothstein began reviewing the C-1 list in the comprehensive rezoning document, pointing out uses he thought should be switched from permitted to conditional.

“Where does it stop?” Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, asked after a few moments.

Frazier suggested citizens would cause an “uproar” at every Board of Zoning Appeals meeting when a business they didn’t like tried to build in their community.

Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, suggested Rothstein was trying to pander to the “not-in-my-backyard” crowd.

“We can’t just pluck fuel stations out because Aunt Bessie’s ticked off at the Royal Farms,” Wantz said.

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Wantz and Frazier voiced concern over the people that could be affected, such as business owners and the Board of Zoning Appeals. If the commissioners want to make these changes, Wantz said, another work session should be held and planning staff should assess the potential impact before the comprehensive rezoning is adopted.

“We’ve opened up a whole new can of worms here,” Wantz said.

Eisenberg said there are about 300 properties that fall in the C-1 district.

Rothstein said he was ready to adopt the rezoning that day, along with the changes he suggested. He noted the zoning code is a living document that can be changed at any time.

“We’ll never come back to it,” Weaver said.

Wantz turned to Weaver.

“I am vehemently disagreeing with your opinion on this and I have throughout this whole process,” Wantz said. “I’ve about had it with all the comments about nobody knows what’s going on. I’m done with all of that.”

Weaver expressed a desire to continue working on the rezoning.

Frazier argued the rezoning has already been reviewed extensively.

“We’ve gone through everything here. We went through it all. We heard from all the parties,” Frazier said.

Frazier made a motion to adopt the new zoning code, and Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, seconded.

Bouchat did not get caught in the thick of the debate, but said he would not want to support action that could have a negative impact on economic development.

Seeking a compromise, Wantz said he would support just gas stations being classified as conditional use if it would get the board to adopt the rezoning that day. Frazier amended his motion to include that change and the motion passed.

In an interview, Eisenberg said her office had identified two existing gas stations in the Gamber area that would be affected by the change. The gas stations will be able to operate as usual, she said, but dramatic physical changes to the properties would require approval from the Board of Zoning Appeals.

‘Catalyst’ for the debate

Citizens’ concerns prompted Rothstein to raise the issue of conditional use Thursday, he said.

A plot of vacant land at the corner of Johnsville Road and Freedom Avenue in Eldersburg worried some residents, according to Rothstein. Through town hall meetings and his conversations with locals, a “significant amount” of citizens told him they feared a 24-hour business would be built on the land, Rothstein said. The interactive zoning map on the Carroll County Department of Planning website shows the plot is 3.5 acres and zoned C-1.

Rothstein said residents told him they did not want a business built there that would cause traffic congestion or add light to the area. The commissioner said he wasn’t ready to breach the issue with the rest of the board before Thursday.

“Between the last work session and this I was still formulating my ideas,” Rothstein said after the meeting.

While the Johnsville Road property is not the only reason Rothstein raised the issue, he said, “That could have been a catalyst for some of the conversation. It was not the sole reason. The reason was to look at the entire county.”

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