A Harford County zoning hearing examiner has issued a ruling supporting a zoning special exception for a controversial project to build 198 apartments in Bel Air South.
Robert F. Kahoe Jr. ruled the site plan for the apartment complex, which would be built on 17.54 acres at the southwest corner of Plumtree Road and Route 24 south of Bel Air, meets county requirements for building in high-density residential zones.
"The Applicant/Owner possesses property which for many years has been zoned for high density residential use and which, in fact, was given Board of Appeals approval many years ago for development similar to that now proposed," Kahoe wrote in his 22-page ruling, issued earlier this month.
The approval comes with three conditions, one of which Robert Lynch, the Bel Air attorney representing applicants Evergreen Business Trust and Peak Management LLC, calls "questionable."
"No unit shall be leased on a subsidized or assistance basis," Kahoe wrote regarding the second condition. "The Owners shall not participate in a voucher, Section 8, or similar programs."
The proposed apartment complex has attracted considerable opposition from those who live near the wooded property, which is surrounded by homes and businesses.
The possibility that low-income renters using Section 8 or other government assistance to offset the cost of their rents would move in is one of the major concerns of nearby residents; they also fear increased noise, traffic and environmental impacts.
Section 8 renters are often blamed for reducing property values and bringing crime to a community.
Condition 'irrelevant,' lawyer says
"However, quite frankly, it's irrelevant because the applicant has no intention of going in that direction anyway, so it's really a moot point," Lynch explained last week.
The applicants include the property owner, Evergreen Business Trust, which was operated by the late Bel Air-based home builder Haron Dahan, and the contract purchaser of the land, Peak Management LLC of Timonium.
Peak Management will also build and manage the apartment community.
Lynch said proceeds from the sale of the land will benefit the Haron Dahan Foundation, a charitable organization with assets of nearly $43 million, according to its 2011 federal tax return.
He also noted Peak Management does not accept rent vouchers.
Teresa Rosier, vice president of Peak Management, testified about the voucher issue during the first of three sessions before Kahoe in February.
Kahoe indicated in his ruling that the "market range" for rents would be $1,300 to $1,500 a month; Rosier said while being cross-examined that vouchers would not be accepted in the Bel Air South apartment community, and "Peak Management would accept a condition prohibiting the acceptance of Section 8 vouchers."
The other conditions included directing the applicants to make "no substantial change" to the site plan without approval from the county's Board of Appeals and to "comply with all Harford County Development Standards, including Adequate Public Facilities regulations."
"My clients are comfortable with the decision," Lynch said last Wednesday.
All parties have until 5 p.m. on Aug. 5 to file for a review of Kahoe's opinion by the Harford County Council.
The county council, sitting as the Board of Appeals, would hear arguments and then make a decision.
A number of residents, plus two Harford County officials, testified against the project before Kahoe in February. Opponents were represented by Harford People's Counsel Brian Young.
The Evergreen trust also owns land on the east side of Route 24, which trust officials plan to sell to allow Walmart to build a store with a grocery section, significantly larger than the Abingdon store, which the Bel Air South store would replace.
Bel Air South residents have been even more strident in their opposition to the proposed Walmart, staging protests, spending hours pleading with the County Council to stop the project and attracting the support of state legislators.
Legislation was introduced before the council to require projects slated for B3 zones, such as the Walmart, to be subject to a stricter county approval process, but it died during the spring when council members declined to vote on it under threat of litigation.
The Walmart and apartment complex projects are not related, however, and are going through separate county approval processes.
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The apartment project has been the subject of two cases before the zoning hearing examiner. The entire project is Case 5781; a separate application, Case 5782, was filed to adjust the current zoning boundaries, allowing all 198 units to be built.
The developer could only build 197 complete units, and a fraction of the last unit, if the boundaries were not changed, because of the density requirements for each zone.
Kahoe issued a ruling in April approving the change; the ruling was appealed, and the Board of Appeals heard arguments in June. Board members did not make a decision, but plan to take the matter up again when council meetings begin in September.
The parcel is divided among R1, R3 and R4 zones, with the smallest section being in R3; Kahoe ruled that the boundaries should "be adjusted," so the R3/R4 boundary runs along the center of Tollgate Road, making the R3 section part of R4.
The Evergreen property is between both ends of Tollgate Road; the missing link would be filled in if the apartment community is built. Lynch noted during testimony in February that completing Tollgate has been part of the county's master plan for 30 years.
"The project will take place in a highly developed section of the County, an area which will benefit by the resulting completion of Tollgate Road Extended," Kahoe wrote. "The objections raised by the neighbors, while no doubt genuinely felt, are not sufficient to support a finding of adverse impact to the public welfare, and fall well short of the showing which must be made to support a denial."