Churchville residents opposed to the proposed Regent at Stone House equine center and wedding venue made another show of force Wednesday, with at least a dozen people in yellow anti-Regent shirts lined up outside the Harford County Council building in Bel Air well before a 9 a.m. Development Advisory Committee meeting to review the project.
Opponents warned the committee that owners Tim and Lisa Limberger's redesign of the building they plan for the Glenville Road site as a horse-riding facility, not just a wedding venue, is a ploy.
Bob Marks, who has lived on Glenville Road for 28 years, said he does not understand why the riding facility and a building that would include alcohol, food and music were reviewed jointly.
"I don't understand why these were lumped together," he said during the lengthy review session. "The riding stable is obviously a legal, low-impact use for agricultural land. However, in this case, and I'm sure it's the only association with a horse, it's being used as a Trojan horse to try to get an approval for the high-impact commercial venture."
Several opponents said they had come at 7:30 a.m. to wave signs at the corner of Bond Street and Churchville Road by the council chambers, where the DAC meeting was moved from the county administration building across Bond Street to accommodate a larger than normal attendance.
Fred Ford, who lives across the street from the Limbergers on what he calls "ground zero" for the anti-Regent movement, held a rally Sunday that opponents said drew about 75 people.
Protests of the couple's plans have been ongoing since last summer, with the Limbergers and the opponents trading charges and counter-charges about harassment and thefts of yard signs opposing the project, among other claims.
'...clearly a subterfuge'
"The Limbergers have described their business on fact sheets and on the Internet as a wedding venue for all types of receptions, parties, corporate events, non-profit fundraisers, debutante balls, proms and community meetings," Michael Leaf, a lawyer representing some of the project's opponents, told the committee.
Leaf said that sounds "just like a description of the Richlin Ballroom [in Edgewood] or the Water's Edge Events Center [in Belcamp]," casting doubt on the "claim" that a "commercial riding venue" will be the building's main use.
"This, I believe, is clearly a subterfuge," he said, adding it is "disingenuous" to call the project a barn to be used for horses.
The Limbergers' neighbors have spent the better part of a year fighting the project, initially proposed as an 8,853-square-foot wedding and events venue, but since modified to a 4,035-square-foot building for use mainly as an equine center.
The owners are proposing a "horse-riding stables and receptions" facility, with stalls on the lower floor and receptions above it, engineer John Gonzalez told the review committee.
The 51.5 -acre site would also feature 56 parking spaces, including four handicapped accessible ones and a 20,000-gallon underground water storage tank as part of its fire suppression system, Gonzalez said.
They must still meet a host of county requirements and be evaluated by the law department, committee chairman Moe Davenport told the residents after a roughly two-hour meeting during which many of the 60-plus opponents in attendance got up to testify.
The owners must still submit items like soil percolation tests for the health department. The county could not approve landscape plans or forest conservation plans at this time, Davenport explained, reading from a report, and a traffic impact study is still under review.
The county also wants clarification on how the facility's capacity was determined and wants a cost estimate to be included with the landscape plan, Davenport said.
He also noted black cherry trees, which the owners had mentioned as possible plantings, are potentially toxic to horses and recommended making the building fit the "historic time frame" of the community with appropriate colors and design.
"We're going to follow bylaws and the letter of the law with regard to subdivision regulations," John Gessner, the Limbergers' lawyer, said in his only statement to the committee.
The project must meet all applicable development regulations, such as parking and screening standards, which is what Wednesday's review was all about; however, the property's agricultural zoning permits a commercial facility such as the Limbergers are proposing. Over the years, the county has modified its zoning laws to allow owners of agricultural property other options to use their land besides farming or residential subdivisions.
The Limbergers have argued they are just trying to live a personal dream by building the horse facility and wedding venue on the property where they have made their home for less than two years; the neighbors say those plans would intrude on their own dreams.
"I drive three hours, approximately, each day to be able to get to that property, which is my life's dream," Tessa Worsham said of her land, which she bought 13 years ago as an empty lot.
"Nobody in here is probably in their 20s; everybody has a life dream to live there and enjoy the peaceful and quiet environment, not to make mega-bucks from a wedding venue," she said.
Worsham recalled that she was issued a zoning violation two weeks after moving in for having Johnsongrass on her property.
"I had to get rid of Johnson weed immediately because it was going to affect the whole neighborhood. But the wedding venue isn't going to?" Worsham wondered, telling the committee: "I got rid of the Johnson weed. I hope that you can help me get rid of this wedding venue."
Ed Steere, a planner working for Leaf on behalf of some of the residents, said the elevation for the project is not consistent with a barn and the traffic impact study was only based on wedding venues and did not consider all the hours when such a venue might get traffic.
"It's not just a wedding venue, it's a banquet hall," Steere, a former planner with the county, said. "This is not an agriculture-related facility in any way, shape or form."
Jerry Hudgens, another resident, said the Limbergers will find out no one wants to rent a place for parties with horses on the floor below.
"I don't think we have to worry about property values in the area," he said sarcastically. "Sure, they'll go down. And then what will happen? We have opened the doors for commercial development."
At the end of the meeting, Davenport told the opponents their concerns are being seriously considered by the committee.
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"We have reviewed plans and we have asked for revisions," he said. "Most of the things that were identified today [by opponents], we have already identified, and we will continue to follow up on them."
"Obviously you have concerns about the nature of those commercial activities. We do also," Davenport said.
"As anyone who has been through a building process knows that the final product is never completely reflective of the original plans," Lisa Limberger said in a statement Thursday.
"This is a process," she said. "Our business plans and building plans have been updated to accommodate requests from our community that we heard at our Community Input Meetings and personal conversations from those who took the time to reach out to us personally and respectfully with any questions and concerns. We also included all recommendations made to us from the county."
"It should be noted that our project would not have processed through the Development Advisory Committee had it not been a permitted use of the regulations as they currently exists," she continued. "Our intentions are to maintain, preserve and encourage the current agricultural setting and promote agri-tourism in Harford County."
"We and many others believe this plan will be a great benefit to Churchville and Harford County. We look forward to sharing this property with the equine communityand our community as a whole," she said.