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Mount Airy officials fear 250 acres will be developed regardless of annexation: ‘We’re being blackmailed’

Mount Airy officials have expressed concerns that even if the town opts not to annex and develop a property spanning 258 acres, Carroll County will develop the land anyway.

The town is considering annexing the land — bounded by Md. 27 and Leishear and Boteler roads — ahead of possible development of a 128-acre employment campus, 85 acres of parkland for future development and 45 other acres blocked off for future development. Carroll County acquired the land known as the Harrison-Leishear property in 2009, and its status has been in limbo in recent years.

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Roxanne Hemphill, chairperson of the Mount Airy Planning Commission, said at a workshop Oct. 13 that “everything” is on the table for the Industrial Development Authority of Carroll County, from high-density residential development to a “large single box distribution center.” A parkland parcel part of the property might be sold to a new developer or owner, she said at the workshop.

Hemphill said in an interview with the Times that most of the concerns have come from people living near the property. Some planning commission members were unhappy about the stance Hemphill alleged that the IDA had taken. One of them, Judy Olinger, said she hoped to keep “the flavor of a small town."

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“We’re talking about a significant change to what Mount Airy looks like, period. We’re being blackmailed by the county and IDA into doing this. ‘If you’re not going to do the annexation, we’re going to make sure we put whatever we want there’,” Olinger said. “It’s not going to be like what we look like right now.”

Sue Chambers, IDA president and CEO, denied that the IDA ever made such a statement. She told the Times that the IDA has not made a decision about a scenario in which Mount Airy does not annex the property.

“It is our mission to develop quality employment campus zones,” Chambers wrote in a statement. “Our goal has been for 10 years to develop this plan with the town. A decision has not been made to move forward other than annexation.”

The Board of County Commissioners agreed with the IDA about developing the land even if the annexation doesn’t go through, Hemphill alleged.

When asked for comment, county Commissioner Eric Bouchat, a Republican who represents Mount Airy as part of District 4, said such a decision would be up to the IDA’s board. The Board of County Commissioners adopted a resolution to create the IDA in 1980 in part to “encourage the increase of industry and a balanced economy,” according to IDA’s website. The IDA is empowered to issue bonds to promote development, according to the resolution that established it.

“I can not speak as to what their board will decide to do with the property if annexation fails,” Bouchat said in a text. “I do however believe that it is in the compromise of all party’s involved that a best resolution shall be reached.”

The Mount Airy Planning Commission has not yet decided on whether to recommend the annexation.

Also under consideration in the area is a plan to rezone 102.5 acres of land, known as the Colburn/Hulver/Bay parcel, on the north border of the Harrison-Leishear property. At a Sept. 30 meeting, the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission gave an unfavorable recommendation to the Board of County Commissioners about rezoning the land.

Mount Airy Planning Commission member Scott Sirchio said at the Tuesday meeting that the Harrison-Leishear development is inevitable. He is in favor of annexation.

“It might stay farmland for a year or two, maybe five. But it will become something,” Sirchio said. “I just don’t understand why we wouldn’t want control of that. We can make it something else. It doesn’t have to be a building with offices in it. But we can’t control it if it’s the county’s."

Sirchio also said that annexation would bring in tax money for the town and that all of the dissenting voices live “within 100 yards” of the proposed employment campus.

Mount Airy Planning Commission member Leslie Dickinson said there might not be people in the offices due to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly undermining the tax base.

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“I don’t think we’re assuming that if it’s not annexed, it’s not going to be developed,” Dickinson said. “I don’t think they can do whatever they want, because they have the same processes to go through as we do.”

Both the Harrison-Leishear and Colburn/Hulver/Bay proposals have drawn scrutiny from nearby residents, who have said the developments could be disruptive in terms of traffic and light pollution, among other reasons.

“I’d like my town to stay small like when I moved here,” Brandon Rakes, who has lived in Mount Airy for 20 years and lives near the Colburn/Hulver/Bay property, said at the Sept. 30 meeting. “I’m concerned about what they’re doing with the Harrison-Leishear property, which is 250 acres. Do we need another 100 acres developed? I don’t think so.”

Proponents of both plans have argued they would increase the nonresidential tax base and bring jobs to the area.

According to a survey of nearly 1,800 town residents reported at the Mount Airy Planning Commission workshop Tuesday, about two-thirds of respondents were in favor of the potential annexation of the Harrison-Leishear property.

Among town residents eligible to vote in town elections, 51.86% said they would be in favor of the town’s annexation and development of the Harrison-Leishear property, Michael O’Brien, a member of the town’s growth and development task force, said at the workshop. Among the 1,799 respondents, 15.56% said they wanted the property to remain as is, 6.39% said they want the county to control and develop the land, and 26.8% said they didn’t know enough to comment, O’Brien said. The survey had a response rate of about 22%, he said.

The survey was administered before the coronavirus pandemic, so Dickinson said she thinks it isn’t very useful and the town doesn’t need an office park anymore.

“COVID will pass and people will be going back to work to some degree,” Sirchio responded.

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“Having this in the town with the business tax base will boost our town economy,” Hemphill said. “[But] I’m stuck on why this has to be an office park ... I wish there was some flexibility within this."

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The survey question was presented along with with pros and cons related to annexation, he said. A Town Council vote is estimated for April 2021 on the Harrison-Leishear property, according to a presentation given at the Sept. 28 planning commission meeting. Hemphill will ask for an extension on the issue at the next Town Council meeting in November, she said.

As for the Harrison-Leishear proposal, Mount Airy council member Karl Munder gave a briefing at the Tuesday workshop on several other developments from the Industrial Development Authority.

Access to the development would be off Md. 27, probably off Leishear Road, Munder said. Another access point off Md. 27 can be requested, but that decision is up to the Maryland State Highway Administration, he said.

Hemphill and Town Council member Pamela Reed both have raised concerns about traffic for residents who use the road to commute.

The town and Carroll County are also trying to broker an agreement to address potential well problems that neighbors have raised concerns over, Munder said.

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