After two years of discussions, public hearings and numerous drafts, the Westminster Common Council created last night a new commercial zone to allow grocers and other stores in city neighborhoods.
The ordinance passed by one vote. Council President Damian L. Halstad broke a tie to enact the measure, which restricts the size and style of businesses in the commercial zone and requires that they blend into the neighborhood.
The major sticking point in the ordinance was the 55,000-square-foot limit on stores. Critics said stores in the zone wouldn't be neighborhood shops but "big box" stores that wouldn't promote pedestrian and bicycle traffic as hoped.
"We talked about being pedestrian- and bike-friendly," said Councilman Edward S. Calwell. "When you're talking about 55,000-square-foot stores, the only bicycles in front of the stores are the ones they sell. They have no bicycle racks."
Calwell and Councilwoman Suzanne P. Albert opposed the ordinance. Councilmen Kevin Dayhoff and Gregory Pecoraro supported the measure.
Dayhoff said that although he was "very uncomfortable" with the maximum store size, he was willing to work with the ordinance. "Let's go with this," he said. "If it doesn't work in five years, let's revisit it and tweak it again."
The zone has been contentious, especially among residents of Cliveden Reach, a housing development adjacent to the Koontz property off Route 140. The Koontz property is one of three areas slated for rezoning to neighborhood commercial. Residents of the development complained the 55,000- square-foot limit on stores in the zone was too large for a residential neighborhood and suggested a 25,000-square-foot limit instead.
Under the new zoning, buildings would be restricted to three stories and would have to be built using an architectural style that blends into the surrounding area.
Signs and facades must be understated, and trees and shrubs must be used as a buffer. The ordinance prohibits drive-throughs, except at banks, and it includes almost four pages of permitted uses ranging from animal hospitals to video stores.
The most recent public hearing to discuss the ordinance was in July.
Brian Hogan, a Westminster resident who has followed the ordinance closely and attended last night's meeting, was disappointed by the council's decision.
"I really think the council has failed the citizens of Westminster," said Hogan, a federal employee. "I don't understand how you could vote for something that large."
In addition, the council introduced a zoning ordinance to create a downtown business zone.
The zone, developed as part of Westminster's comprehensive plan, is designed to reflect the idea that downtown businesses need different zoning requirements from those in suburban, heavily commercial or industrial areas.
This downtown business zone would be more restrictive than the business and restricted industrial zones it would replace.
Only those types of businesses specifically listed in the ordinance would be allowed.
The ordinance for the downtown business zone is likely to be enacted at the Common Council's next meeting, Oct. 9.