A decision on whether to allow a large mixed-use project near the Dorsey MARC train station along Route 100 was postponed late Thursday night by the Howard County Planning Board.
Oxford Square, which could have up to 1,400 apartments, 1 million square feet of commercial space, stores, and give the county a 5-acre school site, is different from two other train station proposals in the county, because it is across Route 100 from the station.
The developers say they'll gain access to the train platforms via a 1749 easement that allows extension of an existing road along the railroad tracks from the station, under the highway bridges, directly into their property.
The project boundary is just 850 feet from those existing boarding platforms, roughly half the distance to the existing train station's farthest parking lot, according to David Scheffenacker, the developer.
The location is off Coca Cola Drive, which was named when county officials thought the giant soft drink company was going to build a bottling plant there. Coca Cola Enterprises bought the land in 1992 for $15.1 million and agreed to sell it to Scheffenacker's company, Preston Partners of Lutherville, last year.
The planning board got an elaborate, nearly two-hour presentation from the developer, who brought a land planner, an economist, a traffic expert, an architect and a land-use attorney equipped with the latest Google mapping visual aids to sell the idea of a transit-oriented development instead of a routine industrial or business park on the land.
"Industrial would do fine there," Scheffenacker said. "It's just not the highest and best use."
Although speakers from the Greater Elkridge Community Association and the Howard County Citizens Association opposed a zoning change for Scheffenacker's project, county planners recommended approval for the reason the developer offered. The board put off a discussion and decision until 6 p.m. Jan. 21 because the hour grew late.
Howard Johnson of GECA and Cathy Hudson of HCCA argued that the loss of property zoned for manufacturing is unwarranted and that any zoning change should wait until the next comprehensive rezoning instead of being done piecemeal.
County planning director Marsha McLaughlin said that if the mixed-use project is built, it could spur redevelopment of older warehouse properties in nearby Anne Arundel County.
The Dorsey project on 122 acres north of Route 100 came to light in November, and the developers need a zoning change from industrial to transit-oriented development to permit the combination of commercial and residential uses densely packed on one site.
The TOD zone was created in 2004 to encourage mixed-use projects near transit hubs. The zoning board, composed of County Council members, must decide that, with help from the planning board's recommendation.
Economist Anirban Basu said that with the huge federal expansion in the Fort Meade area, Howard County needs more apartments. The site is five miles from the fort and the National Security Agency.
Melanie Moser, the land planner, said almost the entire site is within the 3,500-foot limit from the train station allowed in TOD zones.
"Oxford Square represents an extraordinary opportunity," she said.
Traffic expert Mickey Cornelius said the mix of residential and commercial uses would split the traffic flow, reducing rush-hour congestion, and the transit station would further cut traffic, but the recommendation hangs on the zoning change. To get it, the developer must show that the county made an error in not changing the zoning in 2004, the last comprehensive rezoning.
"This is one of the clearest cases of mistake I have ever seen," Erskine said.
In 2003, no one noted that the train platforms stretch north from the station under Route 100's bridges or that the BRAC-related jobs were coming. More important, he said, no one knew then about the Colonial-era easement that provides direct access from the Oxford Square site to the train station.
Without any zoning change, Preston could still build a traditional office park.