Builders of track ask for a break; County Council to vote on forcing developers to hold public hearing


From the edge of the Patapsco River, where they hope to build a 61,000-seat racing stadium, developers made a plea for mercy Friday, asking a mostly new Anne Arundel County Council to look kindly on their project.

At stake is the $5 million spent and five years invested in what has turned out to be one of the most controversial development projects in Anne Arundel County in a decade. The County Council is just four members' votes from taking it all away, or at least delaying it for a long time.

The council will vote tomorrow on whether to require Chesapeake Motorsports Development Corp. to appear at a public hearing before it does any building on land along the bay, south of the Key Bridge.

A bill sponsored by council members A. Shirley Murphy, Daniel E. Klosterman Jr. and Barbara Samorajczyk would reverse a much-criticized zoning law passed in April by the old council that allows racing speedways on land zoned for heavy industry as long as certain conditions are met.

On Friday afternoon, developers took five council members on a tour of that land, home to an abandoned copper refinery and a working steel company. The developers stood on cracked concrete under rusting pillars and promised to find room to park cars, to expand Fort Smallwood Road and to never hold a rock concert at their stadium.

We've done everything the county has asked, Chesapeake's chief executive officer, Missy Berge, said; don't send us back where we started.

"There are people who want to kill the project," she told the group. "They will go on appealing it until the cows come home."

"Just give us a chance," said Bob Douglas, attorney for the track.

Chesapeake has been through a lot since it brought its proposal to Baltimore County in 1994. After support from officials dwindled, the group headed to Russett three years later. They got a worse reception from those residents and moved to Pasadena.

The developers got some welcome help last April from the old County Council, when members approved legislation allowing the developers to move forward quickly with the project despite residents' complaints.

Shortly afterward, residents began to resent Chesapeake's movement through the process. Many homeowners said they felt ignored, overlooked, even patronized.

Track fans, meanwhile, began showing up at meetings in large numbers, sporting NASCAR and Indy Racing League jackets.

Eventually, two groups were formed -- one in support of the track, one opposed. Both were impressively organized. Each established Web sites and produced information booklets and personalized stationery.

Questions about the project persist.

"Where are you going to put all the campers?" Murphy asked Friday as the riverside discussion became more heated. "We all know people come in campers."

"There are racetracks that don't have campers," said Joseph Mattioli III, chief operating officer of Chesapeake. "And until we find space, maybe we won't have campers."

"Campers?" asked Councilman Cliff Roop. "Where are you going to park all of the cars?"

"Well, that's the $64,000 question," Douglas answered, saying that the stadium won't be built until parking is lined up.

Last week, CSX said again it has no interest in selling the property it owns next to the Chesapeake site. Developers need to find an additional 87 acres, Mattioli said. They are considering parking sites in Baltimore and Baltimore County.

"Who is going to pay for all the road improvements?" Roop said.

Mattioli assured him that Chesapeake would.

"Do you have commitments from Baltimore City and county for their space and support?" asked Councilman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr.

"The city is very excited about the project," Mattioli said. "We're thinking cruise ships, ferry boats, all of these things we're considering."

The County Council is to vote tomorrow, and the Maryland Port Administration will vote Feb. 10 on whether to lease the site to developers.

On Friday, Murphy said, "In six weeks, you changed 15 years of comprehensive rezoning for this peninsula, and for a person who has been an activist in this area for 30 years, yes, it upsets me.

"You got conditional-use legislation -- with every one of those conditions written to benefit you."

Douglas said the developers would voluntarily hold hearings to show that they had complied with the conditions.

"Then I don't understand why you would object to a special exception," Samorajczyk said, referring to the proposed legislation, which would require a hearing.

As they headed toward their cars, many council members said that question is the key to how they will vote tomorrow night.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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