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Bel Air Academy site owner gets the OK to proceed with apartment/townhouse development

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Nearly four years after he purchased the historic Bel Air Academy building at auction, property owner John Zoulis can move ahead with plans to redevelop the site with apartments and townhouses.

“We would like to get it in production, to make it viable again and bring it back to life,” Zoulis said Monday.

The Bel Air Planning Commission approved, during its Jan. 3 meeting, a site plan and a landscape plan for the 12-unit townhouse segment of the project. The commission members also re-elected Lois Kissinger Kelly as chair and Peter Schlehr as vice chair.

The proposed townhouses would be built in two new buildings constructed next to the academy building on the 1.07-acre site at 45 E. Gordon St. The academy building is currently unoccupied, and the townhouse buildings would be constructed on an adjacent paved area currently used for parking.

Eight apartment units, including two one-bedroom and six two-bedroom apartments, are planned for the academy building, Mitch Ensor, of the Bay State Land Services engineering firm in Forest Hill, told planning commission members.

Zoulis is the CEO and founder of Zoulis Properties Inc., a Linthicum-based real estate investment firm. The company acquires and develops properties and manages residential and commercial properties for lease and sale, according to its website.

He said Monday that he is awaiting approval for building permits to proceed with construction on the eight apartments. His next step for the townhouses is obtaining municipal approval for stormwater management facilities, followed by building permits.

Zoulis estimated it will take another four to six months to get all necessary approvals, and then it would take six to eight months for construction. He hopes to break ground this spring or summer, and have the buildings ready by the first quarter of 2020.

The Bel Air Academy units would be managed by Zoulis Properties, based on the CEO’s current plans, attorney Robert Kahoe of Bel Air, who represents Zoulis, told the commission.

“All his properties are fully rented, so [Zoulis] will be a good owner of this parcel, of these units, and I hope he does more in Bel Air, more in Harford County,” Kahoe said.

The Bel Air Academy building dates to the 1880s and has served as an elementary school, a high school and the Harford County Public Schools headquarters. It has been unused since 2006, when the school system moved to its present-day headquarters in the A.A. Roberty Building at South Hickory Avenue and Courtland Place.

Harford County owned the building until it was declared surplus in 2014; Zoulis purchased it at auction in February 2015 — he offered the top bid of $101,000. The academy cannot be demolished unless it presents a clear public safety concern, according to county stipulations.

The site lies between Bel Air Elementary School and the Historical Society of Harford County headquarters in the former Bel Air Post Office. A handful of residences and businesses, such as the Klein’s ShopRite supermarket at Gordon and North Main Street and The Kelly Group financial services firm, are on the opposite side of Gordon Street.

Zoulis’ plans for the site have gone through several iterations over the years. He put forth an initial plan in late 2015 to build 32 apartment units, split between the two-story academy building and a four-story new structure next door.

After an October 2015 hearing, the town’s Board of Appeals denied his request for a variance on the building heights; buildings in the B-2A zone, which includes the academy site, are restricted to three stories. Zoulis had also submitted a request to rezone the property to B-2, the same zoning as the nearby Main Street business district, but he withdrew it in January 2016.

Zoulis remained committed to the redevelopment project, however, and the planning commission approved a revised plan for 29 units, still split among the academy and a new building of a similar height, in November 2016.

The plan approval was extended in 2018, although the site plan and landscape plan for the townhouse portion reviewed by the planning commission Jan. 3 would “supersede” that prior approval, Planning Director Kevin Small said during the commission meeting.

Small noted final approval for the apartment portion had been granted last July, so the townhouses would be the commission’s focus that evening.

Ensor said developers would need to obtain parking off site under the density proposed with the prior 29-unit plan. He said “we have been able to accommodate all of the required parking by town code on site” with the mix of apartments and townhouses, however.

Developers had been pursuing an agreement with the Historical Society to allow overflow parking on the rear lot of the latter’s building, as the lot abuts the academy property.

The proposed site plan and renderings were presented by Ensor and Paul Thompson Jr., president of Architectural Design Works in Towson. They showed two townhouse buildings, with peaked roofs, about the same height as the academy.

Small also provided details about the proposal. He said there are two parking spaces for each townhouse, plus half a space per unit at the rear of the structures.

Motorists can enter the property from Gordon Street at three points, according to Small, including a one-way entry via a left-hand turn to a loop starting at the academy, running behind the townhouse buildings and exiting back onto Gordon Street.

There is also a “full-access” entry and exit between the townhouse buildings, according to Small.

The plans introduced in 2015 caused concern among those who work, live and own property along East Gordon Street, and they cited issues such as increased traffic and having neighboring structures overshadowed by a four-story apartment building.

Zoulis said it will be more cost-effective to build townhouses and apartments rather than just apartments, in order to provide “a good product and a good price on the rents and have a return on the investment, of course.”

Maryanna Skowronski, executive director of the Historical Society, gave the only public comments at the Jan. 3 planning commission meeting. She said that she and the society’s new board president — George Harrison, whom she introduced during the meeting — are “both in agreement that we like this plan much better than the previous one, and we’ll be very happy to see things go forward at the property.”

The planning commission voted 4-0 in favor of the site plan and landscape plan for the townhouses — Schlehr, the vice chair, was absent.

Kelly, the chair, told the developers that “I love what you’ve presented.”

“Welcome to Bel Air a second time,” commission member Phil Raub added.

Zoulis expressed his great appreciation Monday for the town’s support on the project.

“It’s going to be a nice project for this area,” he said.

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