Proposed town center in a bind


It was the best of zoning, it was the worst of zoning.

The much-ballyhooed Odenton Town Center has been caught between the high-density development that it permitted and federal wetlands regulations that restricted development.

A decade ago, Millersville businessman Tom Baldwin set out to build a 500,000-square-foot complex with a hotel, movie theater, eight-story office building and shops on land the county designated the Odenton Town Center.

The project was exactly what county planners hoped for in 1968 when they devised the zoning that permitted the development.

But nearly one-third of the 30-acre site was designated federal wetlands, sharply restricting development, after the county zoned the land.

Mr. Baldwin, who based his plans on the zoning, has nearly $3 million of his firm's profit-sharing fund tied up in the project and nothing to show for it but a huge sign at routes 32 and 175 proclaiming: "Odenton Town Center. Coming 1995."

Now, he's working with the Army Corps of Engineers to revamp the plans and reapply for a permit to build on the wetlands.

"It's really the kind [of project] we're looking for to jump-start the development of the town center," said Rich Josephson, the county's chief of long-range planning. "The people in Odenton have been waiting for something to happen for 25 years."

The Odenton Town Center is a 218-acre swath bounded by routes 175 and 32 and Amtrak railroad tracks. The zone -- one of three in the county -- allows concentrated office, retail and residential development. Parole and Glen Burnie share the designation.

Reliable Contracting Employee Profit Sharing Fund, the retirement account for Mr. Baldwin's 300 employees at Reliable Contracting, bought the tract over a five-year period, beginning in 1985. The fund's trustees had decided to invest in the local community and build the first project in the Odenton Town Center.

They collected 10 parcels to make a prime chunk of land and invited Annapolis developer Osprey Investment to design the complex.

They put up a bright billboard declaring that a "Odenton Town Center" would be coming in 1992. They spent about $250,000 to widen a ramp off Route 32 leading into the property and to add a lane to Route 175 in front of it.

But the project came to a halt in 1990, when the Army Corps of Engineers ruled that it would harm wetlands in the Severn and Patuxent river systems. Reliable sued the corps in U.S. District Court and lost.

"The wetlands are in a wooded area and don't drain very well, and the water is absorbed in the ground," Mr. Baldwin said. "Our experts have looked into it and questioned if they should even be called wetlands."

While the lawyers wrangled, the recession kicked in and Reliable decided to delay any work for a year.

Last year, Reliable began working with the corps, the county and other state and federal agencies to deal with the wetlands.

"We're not building Baltimore City or Annapolis," said Yolanda Takesian, the county's project manager for Odenton Town Center. "The plan tries to integrate preservation of the wetlands."

Plans now show a 200,000-square-foot community shopping center with a supermarket and a discount department store or a home improvement store as possible anchors. The eight-story office building is now a two-story building.

The road improvements for which Reliable paid may go to waste because they would lead to an entrance that crosses one of the property's largest wetlands.

County planners acknowledge that the wetlands are an impediment to the project, but they say that the town center can PTC be developed.

"We got all the elements right there to make this area work," Mr. Josephson said.

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