Zoning Decisions for the Long Haul


Even though Carroll County's towns have existed for a century or more, they resemble adolescents in the midst of a growth spurt.

Instead of the hormones that change a teen-ager's physical appearance, a spate of different forces -- economic, demographic, social, technological -- have converged and are fundamentally changing the face and feel of Carroll's towns.

At the same time these invisible forces are at work, the towns have organized efforts to cope with these changes, with the goal of preserving and enhancing their inherent ambience.

Westminster has formed the Greater Westminster Development Corp. to spearhead its effort. Taneytown engaged -- and then fired -- consultants to assemble a municipal rejuvenation plan. Even New Windsor, Carroll County's smallest town, is exploring efforts to upgrade its tiny commercial and business center.

These are commendable efforts. These studies and analyses usually bring forward issues most elected officials and residents don't have time to contemplate in their busy lives.

They range from cosmetic matters such as burying overhead wiring, widening sidewalks and planting trees to fundamental issues such as deciding which commercial activities should be permitted within the traditional town boundaries.

Although beautification efforts have the most immediate impact, decisions on land use can have a more profound and long-range impact on a town's future.

Westminster, for one, is in the midst of making an important modification to its zoning code that would limit the types of businesses allowed in the city's central business district -- that area on Main Street bounded by Anchor Street on the west and Longwell Street on the east.

The proposed change would prohibit certain uses -- pool parlors, funeral homes, liquor stores, drive-through restaurants, service stations and car dealers. Existing businesses that would be prohibited under the changes would be grandfathered in as non-conforming uses and restricted from expanding.

The city's planning commission is still considering the proposed changes and has promised to make a recommendation so the City Council can vote on the issue next month.

At the same time these restrictions are being considered, a development proposal for the old Farmers Supply Co. property has surfaced. If adopted, these changes would prohibit this particular development from going forward.

Tevis Oil Co., which has approval to build a combination service station, fast food restaurant and convenience store on the site of a former Exxon gasoline station at Main and Carroll streets, would like to move that development to the Farmers Supply site.

Unfortunately for Tevis, this is the very type of commercial development the city would like to exclude from this portion of downtown.

There isn't any argument about the importance of the Farmers Supply site. Located on the northwest corner of Green and Liberty streets and a half block from Main Street, it is a key parcel in downtown Westminster.

Sitting on the property are a number of structures, including an old stone building that was Bea's restaurant before it closed, Farmers Supply's glass and concrete block showroom and a number of large sheds and garages.

Although an antique store occupies the stone building, most of the others have been vacant since the late 1980s.

Westminster's officials have a tough choice. Should the city proceed with its zoning modifications, thus prohibiting the businesses that Tevis wants on the parcel, or should it enact the restrictions and effectively kill the only development proposal that has surfaced for this property?

If the city approves the Tevis proposal, the amount of traffic in and out of the property will probably thwart Westminster's revitalization effort.

Pedestrians are the lifeblood of urbanized areas. They patronize the shops, restaurants, cleaners, bakeries and bookstores. Without them, there is no vitality.

Parts of Westminster are pedestrian-friendly. Planners would like make the downtown even more hospitable to people who park their cars and conduct their business on foot. With the exception of crossing streets to the library, post office or walking the length of Main Street, there is little mixing of cars and pedestrians.

Placing a gas station, a fast food restaurant and a convenience store in the middle of downtown will bring congestion and traffic. Cars entering the gas station or convenience store may back up through traffic on Green and Liberty streets. To avoid congestion at that corner, motorists would use Bond Street, increasing the traffic around the now relatively quiet Belle Grove Square.

Allowing this proposal to be built would result in long-term damage to Westminster and its revitalization effort would offset any short-term gain.

Instead of having a development that would encourage pedestrians and shoppers in this portion of downtown, Westminster will have created an ambience more suited to the road that long ago helped do in the downtown, Route 140.

Westminster officials' job will be to balance the short-term gains against the long-term damage. If they are concerned about the future, deferring development has got to be the preferred option.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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