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Bel Air appeals board denies request for height variance in redevelopment of former Academy property

Architect Christopher Pfaeffle shows plans Tuesday for a four-story apartment building to be built next to the historic Bel Air Academy. The plans must be revamped because the Bel Air Board of Appeals denied an application for a height variance.
Architect Christopher Pfaeffle shows plans Tuesday for a four-story apartment building to be built next to the historic Bel Air Academy. The plans must be revamped because the Bel Air Board of Appeals denied an application for a height variance.(DAVID ANDERSON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

Plans to redevelop the boarded-up Bel Air Academy as a 32-unit, two-building apartment complex must be revamped after the Bel Air Board of Appeals voted unanimously Tuesday to deny the developer's request for a variance on building height restrictions.

John Zoulis, the property owner and developer, said building a four-story building next to the two-story academy is a key component to create an economically viable project, but board members and members of the public were concerned the larger building could "dwarf" the historic academy.

They argued that economic considerations are not a factor when determining if a project is worthy of a variance.

"I have to meet with the architects and engineers to see what the alternative is," Zoulis said after the appeals board hearing.

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Zoulis did not rule out walking away from the project, after months of working with architects and site planners to design a complex that preserves the academy while meeting present-day building codes and stormwater management regulations, and is still a profitable business venture, but he stressed he would need to consult with his designers before taking his next steps.

"I'm here to work with the Town of Bel Air and the county," he said.

Zoulis, a Linthicum-based property developer, purchased the building and the one-acre lot at 45 E. Gordon St. from Harford County at a public auction in February for $101,000. He purchased it knowing the county has prohibited demolishing the academy, which dates to the 1880s, except for public safety reasons.

Seven units would be built in the two-story academy, and 25 units in a neighboring four-story building connected to the academy by a second-floor walkway, architect Christopher Pfaeffle, of MSR Design in Hyattsville, told the board.

"This is the kind of property that just adds value, adds integrity and adds history to the town of Bel Air," Pfaeffle said.

The academy building is in the B-2A zone, where residential buildings are limited to three stories and 45 feet, Bel Air Senior Planner Bob Syphard told the appeals board.

Board members were concerned that the second four-story, 55-foot building would overwhelm the school building.

"I'm really concerned that the extra story, those other seven units, put this over the top," Fran Johnson, the board's vice chair, said.

She and other board members suggested reducing the complex to 25 units.

"The applicant has not demonstrated this evening a practical difficulty in moving forward with the project that is proposed," board chair Greg Adolph said.

Adolph noted the board recognizes "the uniqueness within the property regarding the deed restriction" against demolishing the academy.

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Board member Diann Stumpf said the only difficulty would be connecting the buildings at the second floor.

"That doesn't mean it has to be four stories high, is my point, so where is the practical difficulty?" she asked. "There isn't any."

Johnson said she was "torn" about her decision, because she wants to see a site that has remained unused for nearly a decade be redeveloped, and Bel Air needs more apartments.

"I am very torn, and I think the height is the real sticking point for me," she said.

The building was used as a local elementary and high school and then the headquarters of Harford County Public Schools from 1951 to 2006. It has been boarded up since HCPS moved to its headquarters on South Hickory Avenue.

"That building should be brought back to life and bring back memories to people who had the opportunity to go to that school," Zoulis told the board.

Zoulis said he worked with consultants to determine the best use for the site, which would be a multi-family dwelling. The consultants recommended a 60-unit complex, but Zoulis said that number is "not cost effective because of the restraints with the size of the site."

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"The site also has a lot of obstacles, a lot of difficulties, parking and height," he said.

He told the board the complex needs to be 32 units, spread over two buildings, to "be viable for the community and as a project itself."

Bel Air attorney Robert Kahoe, who was representing Zoulis, said the prohibition on demolishing the academy is "an extreme restriction; it's something that must be observed."

"I am stuck with a building built in the 1800s that I have to design a new building around," Dudley Campbell, principal with the Forest Hill engineering firm Bay State Land Services, told the board.

Board defers action on parking waiver

Zoulis had also applied for a waiver on the number of parking spaces. He would have to create 80 spaces, or 2.5 spaces for each of the 32 units in accordance with town code, but he was seeking permission for 61 spaces – 42 on the academy property and 19 more in the lot behind the headquarters of the neighboring Historical Society of Harford County, pending an agreement for a parking easement with the Historical Society.

Johnson noted that if the complex is reduced from 32 to 25 units, "you're right at it for the parking."

The board members voted unanimously to not address the parking waiver Tuesday because they had already denied the height variance.

"I don't think we can vote on it, not knowing what the number of units will be," board member Rick Gerety said. "We're basing this decision on a 32-unit apartment [complex]."

Public concerns

Maryanna Skowronski, director of the Historical Society, said society leaders feel Zoulis is "very sincere in his efforts to preserve the history of the site."

She noted, however, that "the original building appears to be dwarfed" by the proposed four-story building.

Skowronski stressed Historical Society leaders "really want to see something good happen to the property."

"We're just asking for a little bit of consideration for the original building, and right now I'm thinking it's a little dwarfed," she said.

Bill Kelly, co-owner of The Kelly Group financial services firm that is across Gordon Street from the academy, also expressed concern about the size of the second building.

"That end of town needs to have something like this as far as [development] goes, but it's got to be the right kind of development for everyone to appreciate it," he said.

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