More than 100 people packed a meeting room at the Abingdon Library Tuesday night, concerned about the traffic that could be generated by a proposed residential and commercial development on the former Bel Air Auto Auction site just south of the Harford Mall on busy business Route 1.
Alan Cohen, a Washington, D.C., area developer, has a contract to purchase the 45-acre property that held the Bel Air Auto Auction site and transform it into a mix of residential and retail development. It would be Cohen’s first development in Harford County.
The plan calls for a convenience store with gas pumps and two commercial buildings, one a 21,000-square-foot two-story with a mix of retail and offices and the other a 12,000-square-foot one-story building that would be strictly retail, Paul Muddiman, with Morris & Ritchie Associates, told the standing-room only crowd at Tuesday’s community input meeting. Such retail could include restaurants, a dry cleaner, salon, travel agent or a dentist or doctor.
The largest component would be the residential development: 131 villas for sale and 100 apartments for rent. All the housing would be limited to residents ages 55 and older, Muddiman said.
Most of the residents at the meeting conceded they know the property will be developed, and many said the plan Cohen has proposed is better than they expected, but they are still concerned that more commercial development will make an already bad traffic problem along Baltimore Pike even worse, especially with a gas station.
“The traffic on that road is too much traffic as it is,” said Max Carozza, who lives on Lake Fanny Road, about a block away from the proposed development.
He’s lived in his house for 27 years, and sometimes in the morning, it takes him 20 minutes to turn north or south on Belair Road from Lake Fanny.
“That road can not handle the traffic on there now. With all these property, stores, whatever it is, you could be looking at thousands of cars a day going in and out of there,” he said. “How do you expect the road to handle that when it can’t even handle the traffic as it is now?”
He said the stretch of Belair Road from the Auto Auction site down to Winters Run is often referred to as “Suicide Hill” because of how dangerous it is, especially in the winter when it’s snowy and icy.
“I’ve dealt with the traffic for 27 years and you can believe I will do everything I can to stop this,” Carozza said.
John Kam said residents who have been in the area don’t leave their neighborhoods off Belair Road on Saturday mornings, or at Christmas time.
The best time to go somewhere, another resident said, is at 8 a.m. to go to church.
Muddiman said a traffic study will be completed to determine what might have to be done to accommodate the additional traffic.
Cohen told the audience he wanted to wait until after the community input meeting to pursue the traffic study, which he said costs about $70,000.
The preliminary parameters of the study have been determined and it should be completed by November or December, when it will go to the state and county.
Cohen, who lives in Montgomery County, offered to meet with residents and the traffic consultant to discuss the problems that exit — an offer residents quickly took him up on.
Marcie Maichle, who lives in the nearby Ponderosa Estates, questioned the need for yet another convenience store with gas pumps when there are already five in the area.
“A 24-hour convenience store and gas station is not warranted with all the other similar facilities in the area,” Maichle said.
She also asked if Muddiman or Cohen had stood at the intersection of Tollgate and Belair roads at rush hour and watched the traffic, logged the number of accidents there.
“I think some of your development is better than expected for the area,” Maichle said. “You’ve got some really smart development going on there, and there are things you really need to take a look at.”
Residents repeatedly asked if the project could be done without the gas pumps, with one woman asking how many signatures it would take to make that part of the plan go away.
Cohen offered that, if he finds out during this preliminary phase the area is saturated with gas stations, he would reconsider it as part of his plan.
“If you find that it’s too much traffic with the commercial development, is it possible to convert it to residential? People would probably prefer more residential than additional retail,” Maichle said.
Cohen said he feels that what is proposed is “the right mix for that development.”
Other residents are concerned about their water and nearby water sources, including the nearby Winters Run, which provides water for Maryland American Water customers, including those at the Auto Auction site. Some are concerned the natural aquifers could be damaged with new development.
Residents in Ponderosa Estates said they oppose a walkway connecting their neighborhood with the residential and retail development. One man said he already has enough “riff raff” in his neighborhood; he doesn’t need anymore.
Muddiman said the walkway was added at the suggestion of the county.
“We don’t want it, nobody wants it,” one resident said.
Cohen reiterated that Tuesday’s meeting is the first step in the development process, and it could take up to two years before any dirt is moved, should he choose to buy the property from the Nichols family and pursue his development.
“We’re really very, very early on in the process. I’m a nice, gentle, kind person. I don’t like to fight. If it gets to that point, I walk away,” Cohen said.
His plan is better than what’s there now, he said.
“I build magnificent communities everywhere I’ve built and that’s what I’ll do here,” Cohen said. “Obviously, you can never make everybody happy, but I’ll try.”