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Carroll County commissioners postpone development decision on Harrison-Leishear property in Mount Airy

After issuing a Request for Proposals for the sale/development of a 170-acre portion of the Harrison-Leishear property in Mount Airy, Carroll County received two proposals: one that is exclusively residential and another that would include residential, flex and commercial space.

County commissioners decided to hold off on making decision at their Aug. 12 meeting, wanting to see more detailed site plans for both proposals, as well as engage the local community.

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The property, which is bounded by Route 27 and Boteler Road, was acquired by the county in 2009. In a memorandum of understanding, Carroll bequeathed the property to the Industrial Development Authority under the condition the property be developed within 10 years or be transferred back to the county. The property includes 85 acres of parkland for future development with another 45 acres also blocked off for development.

The plan was to annex the property to Mount Airy but after 10 years of discussions, the IDA decided early this year to withdraw and transferred the 258-acre plot back to the county.

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At last week’s commissioners meeting, Jack Lyburn, director of the department of economic development, told the board Frall Developers and St. John Properties have submitted proposals.

Jim Frey of Frall Developers “is talking about doing 550 or so senior living housing [units] on the site,” Lyburn said. Frey offered to pay the county $2 million up front and $20 million over the course of the project.

Ed St. John of St. John Properties is proposing a mixed-use plan, entailing roughly 8 flex buildings, 19 industrial lots and some retail space. In addition, the developer wants to build 180 townhouses, 147 single homes and 11 family estates adjacent to current housing.

“If you go through the numbers the taxes to the county would be roughly $2,750,000 and a build out, however they are not offering any money upfront … and they’re talking about between $18 million and $19 million spread over the life of the project,” Lyburn said. “If you go with the senior housing, you’d get about $250,000 a year in increased taxes.”

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He said both projects would require zoning changes to the property, zoned R-40 and Conservation.

“The county really needs commercial, industrial, flex buildings in here,” Lyburn mentioned. “This has always been a site that was for flex space and commercial development. … It was never for residential.”

He compared the St. John proposal with Liberty Exchange, a shopping mall in Eldersburg.

Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, said “this is an extremely difficult decision to make because I think both proposals address two needs; the need for commercial property and some kind of senior living.

Lyburn noted the property is the largest site in Carroll County to be developed.

“Senior housing can go in a lot of places,” he said, adding there are limited spaces in the county for commercial development.

“What are we not experiencing as a result of not having it right now?” Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, asked, pointing out Liberty Exchange has a lot of vacancies for businesses. “I’m having a little bit of a problem making this decision without having at least engaging some of the community down there.”

Other commissioners agreed to postpone the decision to a later date, asking Lyburn to return with more detailed site plans.

During a public comment period before Lyburn’s presentation, Simone Blanchard, a resident of Boteler Road, said she is in favor of a proposal that is strictly residential.

“Residents of Carroll County have been organizing around the development of the property for over a year now and we were successful in getting the IDA to back out of an annexation deal that would have destined this property to be developed as a 36-building office park,” she said.

Blanchard said residents do not want to see a business park or commercial center and suggested commissioners hold a public meeting where the community can provide input before the board makes an offer to a developer.

Another Boteler Road resident, Diane Perney, said she has been requesting information about the proposal for three months and hasn’t received anything, calling on the county government to be more transparent.

Perney said she believes the need for commercial space will decrease as post-pandemic life keeps people working from home.

Commercial development “would turn our town into little Rockville,” she said.

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