Over the objections of the lawmaker representing the Annapolis Neck and amid accusations of ulterior motives, the Anne Arundel County Council has approved the first extensive rezoning of the peninsula in a decade.
The zoning package "downzones" 600 acres south of Forest Drive to stop further residential growth, codifying a growth plan that residents approved four years ago. But the Republican-majority council went against the local councilman, Annapolis Democrat Josh Cohen, and County Executive John R. Leopold to "upzone" three properties along Bestgate Road - a move that critics say might open the gates to a proliferation of retail and office space along the congested corridor.
The council also refused to alter the zoning allowing an undefined commercial project on a 6-acre parcel on Bay Ridge Road, known as the Samaras property, though residents had negotiated for months with the family representatives to win environmental and design concessions.
"What's really disappointing is that average citizens put forth their best effort to work with the property owners in their community, and the council disregarded those," Cohen said yesterday. "People feel that the system is broken."
He asked the council Monday night to let the rezoning bill expire and the Leopold administration to submit a new one so Cohen could offer an amendment on the Samaras site. The council rebuffed him on that, too, voting 5-2 to approve the rezoning package.
Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican, said that consideration of the Samaras project could occur during review of the county's growth blueprint, the General Development Plan, which is expected to occur over the next 18 months.
Despite the council opposing him on that front, Leopold said that the "bulk of the plan reflects the views of the people who live in that area."
"With respect to the individual parcels, the council wrestled with those issues, and I respect the views of the council," he said.
The vote on the Annapolis Neck zoning puts to rest a comprehensive rezoning effort that began two administrations ago, in 1997, under then-County Executive John G. Gary, who started an initiative to divide the county into 16 pieces and require each of those communities to devise a long-term land-use plan.
County planners at the time thought the zoning makeover could be accomplished within two years, but the process dragged on for years as hotly contested debates over the impact of zoning changes brought the process to a halt.
Clashes in previous years between Leopold's predecessor, Democrat Janet S. Owens, and the councilwoman for the Annapolis Neck, Barbara D. Samorajczyk, delayed consideration of new zoning for Annapolis Neck until after both left office in December - despite the approval of the small-area plan in 2003.
Because of the delay between the passage of the Annapolis Neck Small Area Plan and the corresponding zoning map, about a dozen homebuilding projects in the permitting process that are slated for downzoned parcels will be grandfathered in, Cohen said.
Those projects are on the 600 acres south of Forest Drive, including Childs Point, Melvin/Ferry Point and Persimmon Point, where the zoning has been changed from allowing one house per acre to one for every 5 acres.
Dozens of communities had signed on to allow the Samaras property to be commercially developed, on the condition the property owners follow stricter environmental standards, such as for storm water runoff. While the council refused Cohen's request for the rezoning, it did approve an amendment to allow retail on the front side and homes on the rear of the property.
Civic leaders representing hundreds of homes along Bestgate Road complained of the council's decision to upzone in the corridor and of the lack of notice they received. Some said they learned over the weekend of the council's amendments, and a few questioned the motives of the Republican majority.
"I can't believe this is going on," said Barbara Verbrycke, who lives on Lindamoor Lane. She questioned why Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks, a Severn Republican, who offered an amendment to upzone a property on Bestgate Road that passed, "is interested in rezoning a property in my district."
Middlebrooks dismissed accusations that he acted in an underhanded fashion, and said he has collaborated with environmentalists on other projects. "I take offense to that because we work very hard," he said.
Cohen said he fears the implications of the county encouraging commercial growth on Bestgate Road. Nearby Parole has already been designated to accommodate new office and retail centers, he said, so it shouldn't spread in a piecemeal fashion on Bestgate.
"Once you start putting commercial zoning here, commercial zoning there, it's easier for it to gain a foothold, and it leads to a gradual rezoning," Cohen said.
In other news, the council unanimously approved two bills to codify eight of the 10 negotiated union contracts that represent about 3,000 county employees that among other things address salaries, job requirements and education reimbursement. A bill addressing the remaining two contracts - for 68 deputy sheriffs and sheriff's sergeants - will be heard June 18.
The council agreed last week to the financial package for all 10 contracts when it approved the 2008 fiscal budget. The contracts, which will cost the county an additional $13.3 million in fiscal year 2008, vary from two to four years, and all include annual 3 percent cost-of-living salary increases.
Terms of 10 union contracts
All 10 Anne Arundel County union contracts negotiated with the Leopold administration include a 3 percent annual cost-of-living increase, but the groups will get different merit increases over the life of each contract:
Membership contract length annual merit raises
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 582 and Local 2563
1,200 employees (labor, maintenance and administrative) 4 years 3 percent
International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 1563
830+ firefighters, EMTs, lieutenants and captains 3 years 5 percent
Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 70
560 police officers and corporals 2 years 4.25 percent
Fraternal Order of Anne Arundel Detention Officers and Personnel Inc.
241 detention officers 4 years 4 percent
Anne Arundel County Police Supervisors Association
74 police supervisors 2 years 5 percent
Deputy Sheriffs, Teamsters Local 355
60 deputy sheriffs 3 years 4 percent
Correctional Program Specialists, Teamsters Local 355
40 members 4 years 4 percent
International Union of Police Associations, Local 141
23 detention sergeants 4 years 4 percent
Anne Arundel County Sheriff's Sergeants Association, National Union of Law Enforcement Agencies Local 777
8 sheriff's sergeants 3 years 4 percent