Eleven years of planning, zoning and environmental testing.
The better part of a century’s worth of family history and tragedy predating the sale of the property.
A proliferation of information — some true, some false — and fear-mongering on social media.
Those are just a few of the factors that culminated in a fiery discussion at Hampstead’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting Wednesday, Sept. 26, where there was standing room only and conventional meeting practices were at times abandoned.
The discussion of the 100-plus-acre property dubbed Hampstead Overlook was intended as an opportunity for a concerned community and a determined developer to come together, dispel misnomers and find answers.
“This many people showed up tonight, finally,” Sharon Callahan, chair of the volunteer commission, told the Times after the meeting. “I heard all the things on social media … sometimes I’d have to stop reading it because it made me crazy because they were scaring each other without having the information.”
Callahan professed she loved her town and said she never questioned that the residents shared her sentiment. She did, however, express concern about the meetings of the commission she presides over going mostly unattended — save for a business owner checking in for 20 minutes to get a sign approved — month after month after month.
“This is the way it’s supposed to be,” she said of the packed Hampstead Town Hall. “This excites me because this is a democracy. This is great! And even though some of them may have been a little inappropriate, they’re talking about how they feel — feelings are not facts — now it’s our job to get the facts. To get the experts here to give them the facts so that we can allay the fears or change the plan. And that’s what it’s really all about.”
The fears Callahan referred to, those which were brought up repeatedly for more than two hours Wednesday night, relate to safety concerns about building homes on a property with a handful of varying prevalent contaminants. Some of serious danger, others less so.
Residents peppered the representatives of the developer, Florida Rock Properties Inc., with questions. Questions about how they determined the land was safe to put homes on — specifics about that process.
“When you’re testing, you’re testing for all the chemicals that were contaminant of the ground or are you just testing for arsenic for this building permit?” Melissa Rectanus, of Fortress Court, asked the developers. “Because the one chemical mixes with water and apparently turns into a gel and it will stick in one little area, so you might drill one section and then you drill the next section over and it won’t test for it because it’s not like a precipitate, it will stay there as like a Jell-O.”
Much of the chemical contaminants derive from dumping by a company in a nearby property and it migrated onto the 100-acre site, said Dave deVilliers III, vice president of Florida Rock. “The plan for Black & Decker, and I can only speak to what I’ve read and seen, they created I’ll call it an ‘aqua-barrier’ where they basically drilled wells around the Black & Decker site and they pump continuously, they draw this stuff out of the ground.”
One of the biggest concerns is groundwater contamination, and deVilliers explained, “We’re not touching the groundwater on our site, we’re not drilling any wells.”
The preliminary concept plan, which has yet to be returned for approval by the commission, details that the development — tentatively slated for some 270 homes — will connect from town water and sewer, the developers and town officials said.
Carroll Leister was born and raised on the farm that previously occupied the property bordered to the north by North Houcksville Road. Leister told the room his brother was killed from chemical ingestion at the farm. He knows the land, his family blood rooted in it.
“I don’t understand how this arsenic is on a hillside where it was pasture forever, never sprayed, always pastured for cows. How’d all this arsenic come up in one spot?” he asked deVilliers and company. “How convenient is that?”
DeVilliers said he was told it was naturally occurring arsenic — it’s prevalent across the state. Leister’s question, like many others from the evening, would remain in the balance as the businessmen gave their best interpretation of scientifically complex concepts.
Absent from the meeting was the environmentalist the town of Hampstead suggested would be there, and any representation from the Maryland Department of the Environment — who regulate the guidelines developers must abide by in such environmentally sensitive projects.
“That is a great question,” deVilliers said to a question about health implications 25 years late. “And that is a question that really should be posed to the folks at MDE.”
“The issue here is semantics,” said Randy Wilkerson, of Castle Drive. “The fact is most of the people in this room know what happened on that property and we don’t want [a development] there, period. … You don’t live in this town, we do.”
The team of developers displayed empathy, explaining that they were there to listen and take note.
“We heard what the county said, we heard the comments, we talked to the elected officials and heard what their concerns are,” said Ed Gold, principal of Goldstone Properties LLC, which is partnering with Florida Rock in the project. “We are not presenting our concept plan because we’re listening. We’re working on our plan.”
The developers vowed to bring their environmental testing specialist to the next meeting they attend and suggested that, in collaboration with the town, it would pressure MDE to also attend to answer the tough environmental questions and to, hopefully, subdue fears.