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Zoning Board approves Clarksville residential development near W.R. Grace

Simpson Oaks concept plan

A plot of undeveloped land next to the village of River Hill in Clarksville will become a neighborhood of single-family homes and townhouses with a special focus on amenities for the entire community, including bike paths and hiking trails in the woods nearby.

Members of the Howard County Council, sitting as the Zoning Board, voted to approve the project, called Simpson Oaks, Wednesday night.

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Developer GF Columbia LLC, a subsidiary of Connecticut-based Greenfield Partners, plans to build 184 units -- 103 single-family homes and 81 townhouses -- on the site, which is located on Grace Drive, near the intersection of Route 32 and Cedar Lane. The new neighborhood will be next to the headquarters of W.R. Grace, a technology company that sells chemicals and specialty building materials.

The development is the first to be rezoned as a Community Enhancement Floating district, a category that allows for more flexible zoning guidelines in exchange for a higher quality of design and amenities than may have been otherwise possible for a site. As part of the W.R. Grace campus, the 66.8-acre Simpson Oaks plot had been zoned for commercial development.

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Design documents for Simpson Oaks show plans to build a bike path, playground, fitness station, as well as hiking trails in a wooded area on the eastern end of the property.

According to GF Columbia's petition, W.R. Grace plans to donate the woods to Howard County's Department of Recreation and Parks, making the trails and overlooks available to the entire community. One leg of the trail will lead to the Robinson Nature Center, a county-owned environmental education space nearby.

The developer would also construct a bike path along Grace Drive, which would then connect to a Columbia Association path down the street.

"What this has done is create an enhancement that we couldn't have done, basically, without your help," County Council chair Mary Kay Sigaty, whose district will include the Simpson Oaks development, told a Greenfield Partners representative at Wednesday night's hearing.

Sigaty praised the decision to open up the woods, which are currently a part of W.R. Grace's office campus, to the community. "The [Community Enhancement Floating zone]... has given the public access to one of the treasures that we do have in the county," she said.

Michael Bradley, a principal and chief investment officer at Greenfield Partners, said the group had made it a point to listen to community concerns during the planning process, holding several meetings to explain the project to local residents and adjusting designs in response to some of their comments. He said a website created to share information about the project, simpsonoaks.com, had been accessed by more than 10,000 individuals.

"To open pride of authorship to attacks at every angle... is humbling, but we truly believe that through open dialogue we ended up with a better plan, and a plan that will enhance the community," Bradley said.

Community testimony at the Zoning Board hearing was largely positive.

Matthew Brenner, a resident of the Pointers Run neighborhood, which would abut Simpson Oaks to the west, said he supported the plan in general, "like many here.

"I don't see this as an issue between development or no development," Brenner told the Zoning Board. "It's an issue between residential and commercial. If we take the plan that's in front of us as a community, we're better off than if we left it alone. We do not want a commercial development in an adjacent position next to our community."

Joan Lancos, a resident of the nearby village of Hickory Ridge, said she had been following the Simpson Oaks project since she first heard about it.

"The fact that this developer is providing this incredible amenity that is the missing piece to the county parkland in this area... in my mind it is a gift beyond what the county could ever have hoped to do on their own," Lancos testified.

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Bradley said the Simpson Oaks community would likely be annexed into the Village of River Hill.

Kathy Chavers, a representative from the River Hill Village Board, testified that the board was supportive of annexation.

"We have had great communication and outreach" with the developer, Chavers said, and added that the community was "particularly pleased" with the bike lane proposal.

The Zoning Board's approval of the project was unanimous, 4-0. Member Greg Fox was not present for the hearing.

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