The Harford County Council has approved an amendment to the county zoning code that will facilitate the operator of an indoor trampoline park and fitness center to move into part of a vacant building in an Edgewood area business park.
The change, which was approved unanimously Tuesday evening, makes "commercial amusement and recreation" a permitted use in the light industrial, or LI, zone.
The zoning code defines the use as "establishments providing commercial amusement, entertainment or recreation, including arcades, bowling alleys, martial arts clubs and schools, miniature golf courses, pool halls, skating rinks, tennis and racquetball clubs."
As written, the code allows commercial amusement and recreation in the village business (VB), general business (B2 and B3), commercial-industrial (CI) and mixed office (MO) zones. It does not permit such activities in what historically has been considered by the county to be an "industrial park."
Without the change approved Tuesday, the owner of a light industrial zoned property wanting to develop a bowling alley or athletic club or similar use would have to seek either a full zoning change or a use variance, both lengthy and potentially costly processes that could take months, possibly years, depending on potential opposition.
Councilman Mike Perrone said a comment at the earlier public hearing on the bill that the council would be setting a bad precedent "shouldn't weigh on the minds of legislators, in terms of voting."
By voting on this bill, Perrone said, it wouldn't make him feel obligated to vote on future changes to the zoning code, "because I think every set of circumstances needs to be evaluated on its own merits."
He said the zoning code should not be looked at as "static," and the county's land use policy "needs to evolve.'
"I am not advocating a system where people of influence have the ability to push through things they want because they are people of influence," he continued, "but at the same time, because the zoning code cannot possibly contemplate every change in use of property and all the impacts on the communities that surround them ... if the sum of all the positive impacts outweighs some of the negative impacts, then that change should probably take place.
Although the legislation was introduced in response to a specific property, council members said the change potentially has wider application across the county.
Bill 17-002, introduced in January under the sponsorship of Councilman Curtis Beulah, was the subject of a 20-minute public hearing before the council on Feb. 14. During the hearing, Councilman James McMahan asked to be put on the bill as a co-sponsor.
McMahan and Beulah acknowledged during the hearing that the bill was addressing a specific property and, while neither was forthcoming with details, an official with a company that owns the building and the prospective tenant did testify.
This is a "no-brainer," McMahan said, based on a review of the video of the hearing. "It's a perfect use for a building sitting there and doing nothing."
David deVilliers III, vice president of FRP Development, which owns the building and the surrounding Lakeside Business Park, testified that the company has very successful similar operations in two of its other parks where amusement type uses are permitted by right.
Lakeside, whose development began in the late 1980s, has about 900,000 square feet under roof in multiple buildings, he said. The company owns several business parks in the Baltimore area, as well as in northern Virginia and southern Delaware, he said.
DeVilliers said the change would be beneficial to his company and other light industrial property owners, explaining: "We would not support a zoning change that would devalue our assets or undermine the current or future tenant base."
Jack Patterson testified that he plans to lease the Lakeside space for a training center that will be "a model separate from other models," one that in addition to athletic training would feature a speed and agility school and the trampoline park.
Patterson, who said he is the owner of The Athletic Training Complex, explained he has "always been a trainer, always been a coach" and his center would, among other attributes, "teach the athleticism to stay on the field to young people."
"Its a means for which kids – young children, older children – have a place where they can have enjoyment, be constructive, have physical exercise," he continued, adding that the planned center would provide economic development, jobs and "growth for Edgewood and that part of Harford County."
John Mallamo, a Bel Air resident and frequent attendee and speaker at County Council meetings, spoke against the legislation, which he called spot zoning.
Mallamo said he wasn't criticizing the land use, but rather "the process" of using legislation to effect a zoning change, citing instances in the past, such as the Eva-Mar retirement community project, where the code has been adjusted for a specific project.
"What happens, if this bill passes, it invites other people to ask for zoning permission and change the permitted use charts for all manner of different activities," Mallamo said, drawing an analogy of a bawdy house wanting to locate in a rural residential zone. "And the council would have no other recourse but to approve it because they have set this precedent."
His testimony drew a sharp rebuke from Council President Richard Slutzky, who said: "The County Council does not make decisions from one project to another. We'll pass a project when we think it's appropriate and has the zoning that makes sense, and that doesn't apply to a future decision that may be irresponsible and unnecessary and we don't lead from one to the other."
When Mallamo asked if he could have an opportunity to respond, Slutzky replied: "You may not."
DeVilliers of FRP Development said in a phone interview Thursday that the Lakeside building, at 1506 Quarry Road, is 95,000 square feet and vacant, after two long-time tenants relocated.
Patterson has agreed to lease 32,000 square feet, deVilliers said.
He said the company agreed to support the legislation, "because we think this is a good thing from our standpoint and will be good for Harford County. It works in our other parks."