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A 'mixed-use' box of ideas

The Baltimore Sun

While Crofton residents expressed jubilation two months ago when Wal-Mart announced it would scrap its plan to build a store along the Route 3 corridor, the property owner and developer didn't necessarily scrap his plan to bring in a big-box retailer.

William D. Berkshire has pressed ahead on seeking key state approvals to build on the forested 20-acre parcel within the 121,000-square-foot Wal-Mart footprint, all the while talking with several suitors on a variety of projects.

County lawmakers and civic leaders say another big-box store could be in the offing.

"I think it's a good possibility," said County Councilman Jamie Benoit. The Crownsville Democrat, whose district includes Berkshire's land, has met twice with the developer since Wal-Mart abandoned its plans in May.

Berkshire said he is most interested in pursuing a "mixed-use" project with shops, homes and offices. He declined to rule out any plans and said no decision was imminent.

"We are trying to get the right plan, the right plan for the company and the best we can do for the area," Berkshire said.

Berkshire said he has recently met with state highway officials on how to develop the former Wal-Mart site on the west side of Route 3 and on building a hotel and conference center on land he owns on the east side. In addition, after Berkshire resubmitted information related to the Wal-Mart project, officials with the Maryland Department of the Environment are taking "a second look" at the environmental impacts of his plan, agency spokeswoman Julie A. Oberg said this week.

Residents vehemently opposed the Wal-Mart, saying it would further clog Route 3. Environmental activists agreed, saying that runoff from the site would damage the Patuxent River watershed. Benoit and Councilman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican, shared those concerns.

Maryland highway officials said in February that new environmental worries about the watershed led state and federal agencies to delay approving a $700 million overhaul of Route 3 between Bowie and Gambrills. They cited the Wal-Mart project as one of the factors.

County Executive John R. Leopold, who also opposed the project on those grounds, held talks with Berkshire that led to Wal-Mart's departure. Leopold said he's unaware of what Berkshire may be planning.

Berkshire, though, has maintained that activists overstated the environmental threat. He has said the wetlands are man-made excavations on an abandoned sand and gravel site near the Little Patuxent River and that his project would cause nearly no runoff.

Lawmakers and civic activists have said that community input will be critical to any development taking form there. They said that Wal-Mart fell short.

Torrey C. Jacobsen Jr., president of the Greater Crofton Council, said that communities oppose any big-box store going on the Berkshire tract. He has asked Anne Arundel County to adopt legislation that would restrict where such large-scale retail stores could be built.

Jacobsen said that Berkshire promised to contact community leaders before the developer submitted new plans. However, he has not done so, Jacobsen said.

Berkshire said he's consulting with members of the Crofton Civic Association.

While the parcel has been zoned for big-box commercial construction since 1988, the coming review of the General Development Plan, the county's growth blueprint, could allow Berkshire to petition for a zoning change that would allow him to build a more elaborate "mixed-use" project of shops, homes and offices -- if he got sufficient community support.

Such a development, Benoit said, could be more environmentally sensitive than a big-box retail store.

"I don't view it as the county's role to block him from developing it," Benoit said. "The question is: Can he put big box on it and satisfy MDE?"

Berkshire said the cost of carrying the undeveloped property may be too much to wait for a zoning change.

"The only thing we have gotten are a lot of problems and a lot of taxes," he said.phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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