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BMW of Bel Air
(Courtesy of Frederick Ward Assoc, Baltimore Sun)

Following a lengthy back-and-forth over the town's public art amenity requirements for new developments, the Bel Air Planning Commission approved the site plan for BMW of Bel Air's new showroom and service center on Route 1 just west of Tollgate Road, a major step in advancing the project.

The five commission members unanimously approved the site plan during their meeting at Town Hall on Thursday night, but they were unwilling to waive the public art amenity requirement, even though legal counsel told them it was their prerogative. Commission members said they didn't want to set a precedent.

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Instead, they asked the applicant and his architect and site engineers to work out a suitable proposal with the Town's Cultural Arts Commission, including possibly one with the amenity located off-site.

BMW of Bel Air, which is part of Towson-based Priority 1 Automotive, plans to redevelop a former Cadillac dealership at 716 Baltimore Pike. Once the project is complete, the company will move from its current location off Route 1 near Route 23 and the Hickory Bypass about five miles north of town, Marc Cohen, a Priority 1 vice president said.

The former Cadillac showroom and service area at the new location will be rebuilt, essentially using the same footprint as the existing structure with an additional 4,500 square feet added to the final building, explained Ed Zasinski and Jerry Powell of Frederick Ward & Associates, the architect and site engineer, respectively.

The finished building will occupy approximately 21,300 square feet on the site, which is approximately 3.4 acres in total. There will be 75 customer parking spaces and 164 spaces for vehicles in the sales inventory, according to the site plan submitted to the commission. The site is zoned B3 business.

Bel Air requires developers to provide public art amenities based on 0.5 to 1 percent of the project cost depending on square footage; however, BMW of Bel Air's representatives argued they should not have to provide it because their alterations to the footprint of the existing building would not cross a 7,500-square-foot threshold in the law.

Town Planning Director Kevin Small said in his opinion the proposed redevelopment of the building would meet that threshold; however, both he and legal counsel Craig DeRan said the commission could have leeway to make a lesser requirement or to waive it altogether under the town's special development regulations that apply to any building over 7,500 square feet.

"There was a disconnect over the code interpretation," Small said Tuesday. "They [BMW] are going to remove most of the front of the building; it's over 7,500 square feet."

BMW of Bel Air proposed an indoor wall mural visible from outside the eight-car show room of the new building, which will be built to BMW dealer standards; however, commission members said they didn't like that proposal for two reasons, namely that it really wouldn't be seen by passersby and there is always the possibility the dealership won't be there, as car dealers "come and go," in the words of one member.

"Is your problem [with the art amenity] the finances, the cost?" commission member Peter Schlehr asked Cohen.

Not at all, Cohen replied. He said the vehicles sitting on the lot are his "art," the means to draw customers to the business and he did not want anything distracting along the frontage or in the middle of his outdoor inventory. He did say they would be will to pay for an outdoor mural at another location.

That led to the compromise of working with the Cultural Arts Commission and the site plan being approved. Both sides also agreed, however, to postpone action on the required landscaping plan for the site after another back-and-forth ensued about trees that will be required.

BWM of Bel Air has proposed trees that grow to between 6 and 12 feet high that would be placed at the corners of the property along Route 1, but town planners said they were concerned about the trees encroaching on the power lines along the highway.

The planners suggested putting larger shade trees in the interior of the inventory lots, where islands are planned, but one of Cohen's representatives said shade can be more destructive to new car exteriors than sunlight, so both sides agreed to work toward an agreement on both the tree placement.

Small said he believes they'll come to an amenable agreement on the trees. With the site plan approval, BMW will be able to obtain building permits and start construction, he said. The landscaping plan will be settled in August or September, he added.

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Cohen said they purchased the new site in Bel Air when it was still a Cadillac dealership that was being operated by Heritage Automotive Group. At one time, the strip of Route 1 between Tollgate Road and Auction Way had been a thriving new car center, but the area is down to just a Mazda dealership, with some of the other lots being used for used cars or storage for the nearby Bel Air Auto Auction.

Cohen said his organization, which owns BWM dealerships in Towson and Rockville, as well as Mini, Porsche and Maserati dealerships in the region, said they don't have the traffic at the Hickory location, where they have been approximately eight years, particularly from service customers.

"Believe it or not, a lot of our service customers from the Bel Air area drive to our Towson store instead of five miles north," he told the planning commission. "We have found in talking with them that they would come to a location in town; it's mainly for service."

In addition to acting on the BMW of Bel Air site plan, the planning commission also approved the site plan for a 7,200-square-foot pole building to be located on the Corbin Bus Company's lot off Ellendale Street.

The building would be used for making minor repairs or adjustments to the company's fleet of school buses and will be set back as required from nearby residential areas, company representatives said. Schlehr recused himself from the plans review and vote, saying he is employed by the company.

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