The River Hill Garden Center on Route 108 in Clarksville has been selling trees, shrubs, ornaments and more for more than 20 years, helping the county's gardeners beautify their lawns. But in the center's own backyard, it's getting a little thorny.
Some residents living in the neighborhood behind the garden center fear that a change in zoning will transform the center into a strip mall. The center's owner counters that he needs to do what it takes to help his small business survive.
Neither side is willing to concede its vision of what that stretch of Route 108 should become.
For some neighbors, the garden center represents noise, lights and traffic — and they see the potential for even more of all three if one or more businesses are added to the plot, as owners Steve and Cathy Klein intend.
"I think it's really a bad decision for Clarksville. Clarksville's not like Olney," said Dave Elsaesser, who lives on Whistling Winds Walk and has been active in advocating for the neighbors for years. "I don't think it can handle all the traffic from another bank, another Panera, another fast food restaurant."
A concept plan for the site that Steve Klein presented at a community pre-submission meeting in June showed a bank and two restaurants — Chick-fil-A and Panera — on the plot around the garden center. But Klein said Tuesday, July 30, the entire proposal was hypothetical.
"We have absolutely no letters of intent, no discussions with anyone at all as far as what tenants we are going to bring in on that property," he said. "And the reason is that I want to see what's out there and what the mix will consist of before I interrupt our existing business."
Klein said he wants any new business on his lot to complement the garden center and share its "upscale" demographic.
And he says bringing additional business to the center is vital to its survival. The idea is to attract customers during the garden center's off-season, which is most of the year — the nursery experiences peak business for about 10 weeks in the spring and 4 weeks around Christmas. Non-seasonal businesses, such as a restaurant or bank, would bring in customers year-round and encourage more people to visit the center's gift shop, which Klein says is its financial bread and butter.
If the garden center doesn't expand its services to compete with larger competitors like Home Depot and Lowe's, he said, it will go out of business.
"It's one or the other," he said, referring to the garden center and additional businesses or no garden center at all.
Elsaesser doesn't buy that argument. "His intention is just to cram as much revenue generation on there as possible and not maintain the garden center," he said.
Conflict between the garden center and the neighbors, most of whom live directly behind the business on Whistling Winds Walk, is nothing new. The dispute dates back to the 2004 comprehensive zoning process, when River Hill Garden Center, at the time an R-20 residential zone, requested a change to B-1 business zoning.
The Department of Planning and Zoning recommended approval of the business zone, but both the Planning Board and the County Council denied the request, encouraging the center to work within its residential zoning to achieve any expansion it wanted. In its decision not to recommend B-1 for the plot, the Planning Board said rezoning would be an "inappropriate expansion of commercial use in residential area."
But in 2008, while responding to a petition by the garden center to modify some restrictions, DPZ discovered that, due to a 2001 zoning regulation amendment, the center's status had changed from "conditional use" — an approved special exception that allowed it to operate in a residential zone under certain conditions — to a "nonconforming use," a status that grandfathered existing conditional uses into the law but made their expansion nearly impossible.
In light of this discovery, the zoning board ruled to grant the garden center B-1 zoning in 2011.
Elsaesser and some of his neighbors have accused Klein of obtaining the business zoning through a "bait and switch" — that he promised one thing to the council and is planning to deliver another.
"He just keeps scaling stuff up to talk the county into," Elsaesser said, referring to Klein's initial plans, proposed in 2003, for a small café on the plot to accompany the garden center, which have since become a proposal for two restaurants and a bank.
Klein rejects this characterization.
"What we originally wanted would be to put in a sizable café, because back in that time a lot of garden centers were adding food," he said. But in the past decade, he said, stormwater management and road improvement requirements by the state have pushed the cost of renovation into the millions.
For Elsaesser, that leap is too much. "If he had honored what he had really said, which was I just want to put a little Bun Penny to keep customers there — that might have been okay," he said. He cited traffic back-ups on Route 108 due to a light at Sheppard Lane and customers attempting to turn left out of the garden center as a problem that would be intensified by greater business.
He is also concerned by the greater potential for disturbances. While the garden center is only open until early evening, a restaurant could stay open much later, he said. And he worries that cars driving through a potential parking lot toward the back of the parcel could mean more noise and lights shining through his windows.
"From November, when the leaves come down, until May — at least six months of the year — it's all deciduous trees and you can see straight through" from Elsaesser's yard to the garden center, he said.
Elsaesser doesn't see the garden center as an acceptable spot for development. "It should have never really been a site where you put high commercial stuff," he said. "I don't think it fits well there. And it's bad for the neighbors."
Klein maintains that he intends to work with the community by listening to their concerns and installing evergreen buffers in the back of the lot.
But, he added, "the community we represent is greater than one or two or three neighbors that happen to live behind us. I think that's the crux of the matter, is we're not going to allow a few people to affect the entire county."