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County pressed on Odenton

The Baltimore Sun

With no plan yet in hand to finance the key infrastructure for the Odenton Town Center, developers and business leaders fear that building will still be in its infancy in 2011 when the first wave of new government workers and private-sector contractors descend upon an expanded Fort Meade.

Builders and chamber leaders are urging Anne Arundel County officials to determine the dimensions of a taxing district, which would generate a portion of at least $30 million required to build roads and utilities to unify the town center's 220-acre core. Without that being settled, they say, potential tenants and residents will flee to more clearly progressing projects in nearby Prince George's and Howard counties.

"The developers are on board," said Claire Louder, executive director of the West County Chamber of Commerce. "The developers are not the problem. The county is.

"The issue is simply the amount of time it is taking to come to a conclusion," she said. "This was supposed to be wrapped up months ago. The county's ability to put numbers in place in a timely fashion for the project that has been ongoing for decades is the problem. The developers could have come up with a solution months ago. But the county doesn't want to do it that way."

Conceived 40 years ago, the 1,600-acre town center is designed to connect Odenton's bustling MARC station to a shopping core with easy access to hiking and biking trails and its historic district.

Building the Odenton Town Center, though, has proven easier said than done. It spreads across wetlands, woods, a crisscross of roads and highways, established residential neighborhoods and business districts, and shuttered buildings. Several major developers and scores of other building interests have projects at stake. The complexity of interests has put the county into the difficult position of acting as the lead developer, said Jay Winer, president of A.J. Properties, one of the major developers.

"The good news is: The county and state are really seriously focused on it for the first time," Winer said. "That is good. But there is any number of things swirling around."

County officials are continuing to negotiate a special taxing district with designated land owners; maintain their pressure on national real estate developer Trammell Crow Co. for a payment in lieu of taxes for a massive office project on Fort Meade land; and shepherd along state legislation that would allow Anne Arundel County to siphon off a portion of property taxes collected from town-center tenants to pay for the center's infrastructure.

County Executive John R. Leopold, a Republican, said that the county remains on pace to meet his administration's goals of getting "significant amounts" of development under way by the end of his first term in 2010. By 2011, more than 5,000 defense personnel will relocate to Fort Meade, an influx that will spur thousands of more white-collar jobs.

"I am optimistic in that I sense a shared purpose on a part of all concerned parties: the developers, the administration, the (county) council, the West County Chamber," Leopold said. "All the interested parties share a desire to see this project brought to fruition."

Robert L. Hannon, Leopold's right-hand man for town center projects, said one crucial factor is determining more precisely the scale of the development in the core area. Once those figures are better known, he said, county officials can also get a precise estimate on the scale and cost of the infrastructure to support the projects. He said he hoped to nail down a taxing district by the summer.

Hannon, chief executive of the county's economic-development arm, said the collective interest of the major developers and other local interests "are pulling in the same direction." Infrastructure funding will also be derived from impact fees, county bonds, and possibly through major developers making additional lump-sum contributions.

Jay Baldwin, president of Reliable Contracting Co. Inc., said there is not enough support for a taxing district, noting that one can only be formed when it has the support of 75 percent of the land owners -- and they must represent at least 75 percent of the proposed acreage.

"The biggest property owners all want the taxing district," said Baldwin, a partner in a $150 million mixed-use project near the Odenton MARC station. "All the little ones don't want it; that's the problem. The special tax district is a done issue."

Baldwin has proposed that the several major developers make a deal with the county to pool their money to pay for the infrastructure. Under such an agreement, these developers would be reimbursed by others who would build in later phases.

In the meantime, construction will begin on four projects in and around the core area this year. They will offer the first wave of apartments, retail, office space, and hotel, according to county and business officials:

The Villages of Odenton Station -- 220 apartments and 60,000 square feet of retail.

The first phase of the Halle Cos.' Odenton Town Center -- two office towers of 150,000 square feet apiece and a garage complex.

Town Center Commons -- more than 150 residential units, likely apartments, along with 70,000 square feet of retail and a 100-room hotel.

Health and Technology Campus, developed by Winer -- 64,000 square feet of office space.

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat who represents Odenton, said it's imperative for the Leopold administration to support his bill that would alter the zoning for some town center parcels. That would spur more developers to introduce projects and provide greater financial predictability in sharing the infrastructure costs.

Leopold, however, has said he would not consider zoning changes until after a formal review of the county's once-a-decade growth plan -- pushing that zoning proposal off for months.

"Folks coming here as a result of BRAC will not wait for Anne Arundel County to get this town center right," Benoit said.

Developers are also hopeful that the county has moved quickly on the planning review of individual projects as was done for Annapolis Towne Center at Parole. The developer for the Annapolis project purchased the 35-acre tract in April 2004 and received site development approval in December 2005.

Major projects typically take two to three years to be processed by county reviewers. Leopold said he would support quicker reviews.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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