Center for the Arts in Harford County moves ahead in approval process, plans presented for community input

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Plans to develop more than 41 acres in Abingdon for the Maryland Center for the Arts were greeted with support during a community input meeting. But the project also generated a number of audience questions about issues such as traffic, environmental impacts, lighting, security, parking, pedestrian access and noise.

“If it’s going to happen, great,” said Vince Rabenau, of Joppa. “I just hope that it comes to fruition in a way that it does really prove to be beneficial to Harford County.”

Rabenau was among about 40 people who filled a room Wednesday night at the Abingdon Library for the community meeting, which lasted about 90 minutes.

Toby Musser, board president of the nonprofit Maryland Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, presented the plans along with Dudley Campbell, principal of Bel Air-based Bay State Land Services. Attorney Bradley Stover of Bel Air was also present along with several arts center board members.

The Center for the Arts is proposed for a 41.4-acre property at Route 24 and Wheel Road. The north end is near where Wheel intersects with South Tollgate Road in a roundabout, and the west side of the wooded property is along South Tollgate. The site is across the street from Emmorton Elementary School and just north of a condominium community for residents 55 and older at Tiree Court.

The site has already seen some development, with a small parking lot off of South Tollgate and walking trails. The plans presented Wednesday call for an outdoor amphitheater with 500 theater seats and 500 more lawn seats — 250 each on both sides of the theater seats — plus three buildings with a combined square footage of 64,250.

“This is a regional center,” Musser said. “It will be one of the largest arts centers on the East Coast, and it’s designed to draw tourism to Harford County and Maryland.”

He stressed, in response to audience concerns, that developers will work to preserve as much of the forested areas as possible and replant trees and vegetation in areas they must clear to build. He noted that “our hope is to make you feel like you’re in the forest.”

Campbell told the audience that “less than 50 percent of the total site” will be developed.

Rabenau said the operators of the Merriweather Post Pavilion concert venue in Columbia have done “a great job sustaining the forest around that place, so if you guys produce something close to that, I think I, obviously, would be happy.”

Musser said the amphitheater and a building which would be a community center will be built first, in a phase that could last up to two years, followed by the second and third buildings. He said board members have “a laundry list” of potential uses for the structures, but they must narrow it down based on available space and what use meets the greatest community need.

Traffic concerns

“First off, I’m very excited about the project,” said Joy Clark, who lives in Abingdon about two miles south of the site. “I think it’s wonderful, and I’m excited about the arts coming to our community.”

Clark noted she is concerned about the impact on the two-lane South Tollgate Road, with the existing traffic on the thoroughfare plus extra vehicles before and after performances at the arts center. She asked if developers will make any improvements.

Campbell said a traffic study has been completed and has been submitted to Harford County for review and approval — county officials will then recommend if any improvements must be made to Tollgate at the site or at roads or intersections in the vicinity.

He encouraged people to come out to the county’s Development Advisory Committee meeting to express their views during the next step in the approval process. The DAC meetings are open to the public, and they are a time when representatives of multiple state and county agencies give comments on development projects.

Cynthia Hergenhahn, chair of the county’s Abingdon/Bel Air South/Emmorton Community Advisory Board, offered as an example the Harford County Public Library Foundation’s annual gala, which is held at the Abingdon Library.

She said there are usually 800 guests who park at the library and elementary school.

“I can tell you that that traffic disperses within 20 minutes, without any impact on Tollgate Road,” said Hergenhahn, who also noted there are no impacts on the roundabouts to the north at Wheel Road or south at Montrose Way.

Several Tiree Court residents expressed concern about the impact on their community, since they are so close, from traffic or loud music, although others said it could enhance surrounding properties and help Harford County businesses.

Chris Logue, one resident who asked several questions, said later that she is not against the project, but “you just went to know that your life is not going to change too much.”

Another Tiree Court resident, Lisa Fuller, noted the center will be within walking distance of her community, could help surrounding property values and be a boon for area businesses.

“I think it’s going to enhance all the businesses in the area,” she said.

Bel Air resident Steve Allcock said that “we all appreciate the arts” but expressed his opposition to the project on environmental factors.

“You’re going to take a perfectly good piece of land that has marvelous woodlands, all sorts of ecosystems in there, and you’re going to flatten it to put a car-park in there,” he said.

The land is zoned R3, for high-density residential use, and Musser said “it’s not a question of if or even when, it’s a question of what will go there.”

“If we don’t succeed in building a center for the arts, then some developer will come after us and put houses there,” he said. “We don’t want that to happen.”

The center is being built with a combination of private and public funds — the state and county have contributed funds over the years the project has been in development, such as $625,000 in aggregate funds from the county over 10 years and $200,000 in state bond funds obtained in 2016.

Musser said, in response to an audience member’s concern about public money being used, that those funds are meant as a “fulcrum” for raising private dollars. He and his board are working to raise money, and he said almost 60 percent of private donations are lined up, “contingent on us making it through the zoning process.”

“We’ve run the cost and have a very detailed plan,” he said.

Musser encouraged people to visit the center’s website, https://www.mdcenterforthearts.org, for more information or to donate.

“We’re happy to have conversations with anybody at any time, and the board is very much involved in the community and wants to make sure that this turns a benefit,” he said.

Special exception

Stover, the attorney, encouraged people to seek out Zoning Appeal Case 5893 if they want more information about the special exception recently approved for the project and the conditions imposed by a Harford County zoning hearing examiner.

Hearing examiner Robert F. Kahoe Jr. granted on Jan. 18 a special exception sought by the developers to operate a community center/assembly hall in the R3 residential district.

Kahoe imposed 11 conditions, such as ensuring one “principal multipurpose” building is constructed and meets county code requirements for a community center before the amphitheater is built, setting hours of operation, keeping noise levels in accordance with those set by the code of the Town of Bel Air and preserving an African-American graveyard on site.

The hearing examiner’s decision is available on the Harford County website.

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