More than 100 residents of the quaint and sleepy Patapsco riverside village of Oella jammed into a nearby school lunchroom last night to hear details of a controversial proposal to transform the old Oella Mill into 175 apartments and to protest the dangers they see from it.
The developer told them the apartments will turn Oella into an upscale community, raising the values of the mill and existing homes in the Baltimore County neighborhood just across the river from Ellicott City.
"We're going to do a tremendous project here. We're proud of it, and we're going to be good neighbors," said Jon Wallenmeyer, vice president for East Coast development of the Forest City Residential Group.
But many in Oella fear that hundreds of cars owned by mill apartment residents would clog the village's narrow access roads and fundamentally change the character of the tiny historic mill town.
Oella resident Lisa Nicolaou asked the developers how they planned to preserve the quality of life in Oella, where people like to walk and jog along the road.
"Part of what makes Oella so attractive is the lack of people here," she said, winning applause from the crowd at Westchester Elementary School on Old Frederick Road.
Geoffrey H. Glazer, project architect from Kann and Associates of Baltimore, told the audience that traffic studies show that the roadways are acceptable for the project. He said there would be 257 parking spaces - inside and outside the mill building.
Glazer said the plan included sidewalks for the mill property, which does not have them. "This is a jewel of a building. We want to bring it back to its state of historical character," he said.
But resident Lydia M. Temoshok insisted on knowing, "Where are all these cars in Oella going to park?"
The mill, named for the first woman to spin cotton in America, was briefly renowned as the largest cotton mill in the nation, before a long decline that ended with its closure in 1972.
In the years that followed, Oella was gradually reborn.
Dangerous outhouses and wells were replaced with public water and sewer services in 1984. The mill became home to an array of antiques shops, businesses and artists' studios. And growing numbers of houses were constructed among an eclectic mix of historic stone, brick and Victorian cottage homes that line the lanes that twist up the narrow valleys that surround it.
In November, Forest City, a Cleveland developer announced plans to fill the mill with upscale apartments with monthly rents of $1,400 to $3,000.
Now, some Oella residents, long used to dodging occasional vehicles wending up and down roads that, in some places, are hardly one lane wide, have nightmare visions of legions of sport utility vehicles taking their place.
"I don't think there's a person in this room who wants to sit and wait for everybody to get out of the [mill] building," said Oella resident Shane Morris.
The sale of the 5.8-acre mill property is contingent on Forest City gaining Baltimore County's approval, a process that could go into next year.
The mill has the necessary zoning, and the developer has up to a year to submit a development plan after last night's meeting.
Forest City officials originally asked that they be exempted from the community meeting, claiming the development would not affect county amenities. But they later dropped that request.
Donald Rascoe, Baltimore County's development manager, said the development is unique because it involves no new roads or storm water management issues, narrowing the scope for the public's concerns.
"There's going to be little opportunity for people to make changes to this plan because this is a basic plan," Rascoe said. "It's an existing building that's going to be renovated."
Oella resident Julia Graham sided with the developers last night, saying she thought the apartments were the best use of the mill building and adding that her only concern was the traffic.
"The worse possible scenario we will have is that this building continues as it is now and it will deteriorate until it falls down," Graham said.
Jay Patel, president of the Greater Oella Community Association and owner of the Country Corner Store at the corner of Oella and Westchester avenues, said he thinks the community is split between those who welcome the prospects of increased property value and those who fear the increased traffic.
Patel said he thinks a new crop of residents would bring a new energy to the area. "Overall it's going to bring some glow into the town," he predicted.