After weeks of hanging back from the debate over a proposed new Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse in Ellicott City, several members of the Howard County YMCA's board of managers spoke out on the issue last week, saying they remained firmly behind the plan despite local opposition.
Board members said they voted to sell 4 acres of the YMCA's Montgomery Road property to a developer seeking to build a Lowe's because the sale was the only way to pay for a badly needed new YMCA on the remaining land.
And, with a few exceptions, they expressed impatience with local residents fighting the plan out of fear of its effect on area traffic, predicting that many protesters would end up using both the new YMCA and the Lowe's.
"Anytime there's a change, there's people lining up opposed to it," said member Ken Wilmers, an educational consultant. "We're giving them a brand new facility. There are other towns that are screaming for this kind of thing."
Most members of the 21-person board have kept a low profile through much of the debate, avoiding forums on the plan and allowing YMCA employees to make the case for the proposal. This has irked residents opposed to the plan who argue that the board should, as the YMCA's link with the community, explain the reasoning behind its decision.
In interviews last week, board members described the proposal as the product of three years of lengthy discussions about how to replace the YMCA's cramped, 35-year-old building with a new, $9 million facility.
Under the plan, developer J. Chris Pippen will combine the YMCA's land with about 13 acres from Bethel Baptist Church and adjacent homeowners to make room for the store and its 680-space parking lot. The church's membership is to vote on the plan this month; if it passes, Pippen will submit the plan for county zoning approval.
Steven H. Adler, who was chairman of the YMCA board during its initial meetings on its building plans, said the arrival of the Long Gate shopping center across from the YMCA had turned Montgomery Road into a commercial area. Lowe's would be a better fit, he said, than the homes adjacent to the YMCA. The homeowners are selling their properties to Pippen.
"If you can stand there and look across at Long Gate and not feel it's a commercial area, you need to have your head examined," said Adler, the managing partner of Savage Mill, who left the board last year. "I don't think [opponents] are really looking at things from the big picture."
Board members also dismissed neighbors' concerns that a Lowe's will worsen congestion along Montgomery Road, noting that the proposal calls for widening Montgomery Road to at least three lanes in each direction to accommodate additional cars.
One board member, Mark Bobotek, said he has reservations about the project's traffic impact, possibly because he lives nearby and knows firsthand how congested the area is. Bobotek questioned the predictions of a traffic consultant who said the traffic added by Lowe's would be canceled out by area road improvements.
The consultant "is making a mistake in assuming that the traffic is worst at weekday rush hour. Saturday and Sunday at peak are even worse than rush hour, and we're not doing a thing to help that," said Bobotek, a lawyer. "The YMCA needs to understand that the traffic projections for this area have always been off, and it needs to plan for more traffic than the engineer says there's going to be."
Bobotek said he supports the plan, as long as it is adjusted to improve traffic flow - for instance, by limiting entry to the Lowe's to the driveway that will have traffic lights.
At meetings with YMCA officials, opponents have said they support a new YMCA but wondered why the 4 acres couldn't have been used for senior housing or a new elementary school site, instead of a Lowe's.
Board members agreed that the YMCA, before making its sales pitch to the public, erred in assuming that the church had officially approved the plan. But they otherwise defended the YMCA's approach, saying constructive dialogue was prevented from the outset by neighbors' hard-edged opposition.
The YMCA settled on Lowe's because it was the only firm offer it received, board members said.
"What could possibly go in a particular space and when you have someone knocking on your door to go in are two different things," said Adler. "It's a bit presumptuous when neighbors say, 'We want to have seniors, and we don't want a hardware store.'"
The new board chairman, Bruce Hollander, agreed, saying opponents had to prove that a different deal could have produced enough money to build the new YMCA.
"If they want us to listen to something else, it's up to them to show us the alternatives," said Hollander, an executive at Citizens Bank. "The focus for now is building the building we've tried to build for years."