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More than 100 attend virtual meeting, many opposing mixed-use development in Bel Air near Plumtree Road

Over 100 people tuned into a community input meeting on a proposed mixed-use development in Bel Air that boasts space for market-rate housing, retail and entertainment. Their overwhelming message to the developers: We do not want it.

Concerns about traffic, school overcrowding and over-development drove many citizens to speak out against the project Monday, which had to undergo a public community input meeting to satisfy the county’s planning and zoning regulations.

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If approved, the site would place 205 multi-family housing units, a senior living facility and over 186,000 square feet of office, retail and entertainment space on approximately 34 acres of former farmland between Route 24 and Route 924, south of Plumtree Road.

The site was once subject to some controversy when protesters rallied against Walmart, which announced plans to build a larger store with a grocery section on the property in 2012. Protesters were concerned about increased traffic near homes and schools along Route 924, so they took to the streets to wave signs and voice their dissent. The retail giant abandoned those plans in 2015.

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Monday’s three-hour public meeting was hosted on Zoom, a popular web-conferencing service, and attorney for the development Bradley Stover called on those attending when they raised their virtual hands to add a comment or ask a question. That system allowed the moderators to select one person at a time to speak and minimize the chaos of competing or overlapping voices.

The meeting was initially slated for mid-March at the Richlin Ballroom, but was postponed after one of the governor’s first executive orders to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus prohibited gathers of 250 people or more.

Stover told them that this meeting was one of the first steps in the project and laid out the developer’s intentions with the site. He explained that the project was a business venture, leading some residents to criticize the plan and, even, the people presenting it.

“It was a little disheartening to hear you say ‘this is what we want,’” said Sera Boring, a citizen in attendance. “Just because you can build on this site, this is a prime opportunity to not.”

Boring asked how many of the three representing the development lived in Bel Air. When the developer Justin Rosemore answered no, she said “oh, I didn’t think so.”

Citizens’ biggest concern was traffic; the existing area is congested, multiple detractors argued, and the project would make some turns off nearby roads more difficult for residents. That congestion, President of the Bel Air engineering firm Frederick Ward Associates Torrence Pierce said, is accounted for in a traffic study commissioned at the start of the last school year. It is not yet complete, he said, but lights can be positioned and roads can be widened to accommodate an increase in traffic.

But that traffic, attendee Joan Hamilton said, will be partially dictated by the businesses that open in the development, of which the company does not have a hard-and-fast list. She questioned the usefulness of the study since no businesses have yet signed on to open at the proposed development.

“It is very difficult to assess anything,” Hamilton said of the plan. “As far as I am concerned, there are too many unknowns.”

As more specifics of the project become known, Pierce said changes to the traffic plan can be made to concerns. The developers will have to present more specific information at the development advisory commission meeting, which could be in July at the earliest, he said.

An increase to local population could also mean a taxing spike in enrollment at local schools, several people said, but the county has laws preventing overgrowth. Under the county’s code, maximum and actual capacities of area schools are tallied and inform the planning process. If a school exceeds 110% capacity, housing projects in the area it services stop, Pierce said.

"If a school is exceeding 110% of its capacity, it is deemed over capacity and therefore that development plan would have to wait,” he said.

Despite those laws, attendees of the virtual meeting complained of aesthetic overgrowth. They did not move to Harford County, the refrain went, to be surrounded by development. They wanted to preserve the small-town feel of Bel Air, saying this project would be a step toward making the town into a place like Timonium or Essex.

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"This is a town. It is not a city. We do not want another Towson or White Marsh,” attendee Meg Fletcher said. “I really do not think it is a good idea.”

The project will also have to reforest 16 total acres of land to meet the county’s development requirements, Pierce said. Half of that will be completed on this project, and the other half will be handled elsewhere, he said.

Stover said project could provide restaurants, retail and tax revenue for the area and the county. The process will press forward in spite of the comments in opposition, he said. The final product is far from nailed-down.

"I do not think the developer would want to turn his back on the project based on some of the comments we have heard tonight,” Stover said. “This is the kickoff; there is a long way to go.”

In an email, Stover said comments at community input meetings typically come from the most concerned.

“[P]eople who support or are indifferent to a project do not normally participate,” he wrote. “This particular property was already on the radar of many in the community by virtue of the past proposed [Walmart] project.”

The next step will be the completion of the traffic impact analysis and submission for DAC review, Stover wrote.

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