The only sure way to minimize the impact of what could become the second largest retail shopping center in Howard County is to buffer it permanently from the adjacent neighborhood, Wheatfield homeowners told the Zoning Board last night.
The commercial uses envisioned by developer Robert R. Moxley for the 54 acres between U.S. 29, Route 103, Long Gate Parkway and Route 100 are not compatible with the surrounding neighborhood, Wheatfield resident Todd Taylor said.
Mr. Taylor and other Wheatfield homeowners want the Zoning Board -- which is composed of the five County Council members -- to make certain that a portion of the site will be used only for apartments or town houses.
A permanent buffer of town houses and apartments is not the first choice of the community, said Mark Guerinot. It is one he and his neighbors have reluctantly accepted, he said, to put the issue behind them. He said he wanted to eliminate the potential for arguing about the use of the property before another zoning board a few years from now.
"If you allow the proposed zoning change [without a buffer], it will be inconsistent with past zoning and incompatible with the surrounding area," said resident Ron Coursey. "We have single-family homes on both sides and a day-care center across the street. The community would welcome a small shopping center, but this would drastically change the neighborhood."
"Our issues were not understood or appreciated by the Planning Board" when it voted voted 3-2 during a Jan. 30 work session to recommend apartment and local business zoning for the 54 acres, said Mr. Taylor.
"There has been a lack of appreciation as to how onerous this situation is. Residents have had to take off two days from work to come here to speak."
What residents fear most is that if the town house or apartment buffer is not provided, the developer will use the 54-acre site to lure a huge retailer like Wal-Mart.
Developer Moxley had told the Planning Board that creating an 8.5 acre buffer along a 315-foot-wide strip running a quarter-mile along Long Gate Parkway between the Wheatfield neighborhood and the proposed shopping center would preclude any viable development of the property.
Joseph M. Cronyn, senior associate with the Legg Mason Realty Group, told the Zoning Board, "There is more than enough demand [in households and household income] to support a 300,000-square foot retail center" at the site. "Howard County is under-retailed compared to most other surrounding counties, having only slightly more retail sales tax per capita than Carroll or Harford."
A 300,000-square foot shopping center would create more than 900 jobs and more than $13 million in personal income, Mr. Cronyn said. It would also add more $300,000 each year to the county treasury through property and personal income taxes, he said.
Two Westminster residents testified on behalf of the developer, saying they live across from a Wal-Mart store in Carroll County and like it.
"We were afraid at the beginning," Gordon Davis said. "But we are very pleased. The landscaping is very, very nice."
"It is very nice to have Wal-Mart there," said Louis Palara. "It provides part-time jobs for youngsters and women in the neighborhood."