Neighbors push back on development plan for former Bel Air Auto Auction site

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A number of residents in communities around the former Bel Air Auto Auction property spoke this week against plans to redevelop the site for commercial use and for a 250-unit housing complex for senior citizens.

They cited concerns about traffic, proposed walking trail connections to their neighborhoods and adverse impacts on nearby drinking water sources.

“We’re the taxpayers; you work for us,” Anthony Tabasco told members of the Harford County Development Advisory Committee, who reviewed a concept plan for the Bel Air Overlook development on the former auto auction property Wednesday morning.

“Why are you doing something the taxpayers don’t want?” Tabasco asked.

Rockville-based Cohen Siegel Investors, the contract purchaser and developer of the 45.2-acre site in the 800 block of Baltimore Pike, is seeking county approval to redevelop the property. It had been the home of the Bel Air Auto Auction until the business was relocated to a new, larger facility on a 185-acre site in Riverside in September 2017.

The Auto Auction was founded in 1947, and it has been owned by parent company BSC America since 1980.

Paul Muddiman, a vice president with the Abingdon engineering and planning firm Morris & Ritchie Associates, presented a concept plan for the new development to DAC members during their meeting in the Harford County Council chambers in Bel Air.

The plan encompasses four lots on the site, much of which is zoned B3 for high-intensity business use. The remainder is zoned R1 residential.

Two lots will be used for commercial and retail purposes; a third lot is “set aside for future use,” according to Muddiman.

Muddiman did not discuss Wednesday what would be built on the commercial lots. He said during an Oct. 2 community input meeting that a convenience store with a gas station, as well as two commercial buildings with retail and office space, are planned, according to a transcript of the meeting posted on the Harford County website.

The fourth lot covers the bulk of the site, 38.75 acres, and will be used for senior citizen housing. There will be 250 units, both townhouses and mid-rise apartments, and at least one resident of each unit must be 55 or older, Muddiman said.

A clubhouse and park are planned for the residential lot, along with a walking trail system, Muddiman said.

Two traffic access points are planned from Route 1, including a “full movement intersection” at the main entrance and a “right-in, right-out” entrance and exit farther west, according to Muddiman.

He had said during the community input meeting that the main entrance will be across from a commercial center on Belair Road.

Mike Rist, of the Harford County Department of Public Works and one of the DAC members, said a “permanent turnaround” must be built at the ends of West MacPhail Road and Barkeford Road in the neighborhoods separated from the Auto Auction by groves of trees.

Rist said the turnarounds, which would be built within county-owned rights-of-way, would give vehicles operating within the site, such as snow plows, space to turn around.

The county also requires pedestrian access be built along Route 1 “and to the adjacent communities,” Rist said. He said the paths should be 6 feet wide and made of asphalt or concrete.

Public concerns

About 35 to 40 people attended the meeting, according to Lori Pietrowski, administrative specialist for the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning, and most of them came for the review of the auto auction redevelopment.

The committee also reviewed plans submitted by the Bel Air Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses to build a 3,312-square-foot house of worship off of Schucks Road just south of the intersection with Route 22, plus plans by Towson-based 2210 Old Emmorton Road LLC to build a three-story medical and dental office building on a nearly half-acre site in the 2200 block of Old Emmorton Road in Bel Air South.

The site for the medical office building is between Old Emmorton Road and Route 924, south of the intersection with Laurel Bush Road. No one from the public commented on this plan or the plan for the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ development.

People expressed concerns about the auto auction property, though, including some who have lived nearby for decades.

Fran Wergin, who said she has lived in the Bel Air Acres neighborhood for nearly 48 years, acknowledged “something is going to go in” to the former auto auction. She fears the proposed development could increase traffic that is already heavy on Route 1, however.

“The traffic, it is horrible,” said Wergin, whose neighborhood is on the opposite side of Route 1 from the Auto Auction. “Sometimes we cannot make a left turn; you have to go down to the bypass and come around if you want to go into Bel Air.”

Max Carozza, who has lived on Lake Fanny Road south of the site for about 28 years, expressed concern about the additional drivers having to navigate Route 1 where it becomes a steep hill before Winters Run. He said the highway becomes “treacherous” in icy conditions, noting “cars lock their brakes up, and I hear ‘smash’ in the middle of the night.”

“People in Bel Air that have been here for many years know that was always called ‘Suicide Hill,’” Carozza said.

Tabasco lives along Barkeford Road, where county officials want a vehicle turnaround and pedestrian access to and from the new development.

He strongly objected to having pedestrian walkways connecting the new development to neighboring communities, saying developers had not mentioned it during the community input meeting.

“Are these plans going to continually change here?” Tabasco asked. “It seems like it’s a very fluid environment that’s being presented to the people.”

DAC chairman Moe Davenport said the county requested pedestrian access because West MacPhail and Barkeford are part of “a public road right of way that abuts this [Auto Auction] property — we’ve asked they provide a walking trail.”

Tabasco said he and his neighbors do not want connections with the new development, citing public safety concerns. He said they would take legal action if necessary to stop it.

“We don’t want a walking trail at Barkeford, OK?” he said. “I appreciate the county wanting that but the neighborhood does not.”

Commercial glut

Some neighbors questioned the need for a gas station, considering a Wawa convenience store with gas pumps is about a third of a mile away, and there are many more similar operations in the surrounding area.

They also cited concerns about underground fuel tanks so close to residential wells and Winters Run — the latter is the primary source for Maryland American Water, which provides drinking water to the Town of Bel Air and adjacent areas.

“I do think that the risk analysis on adding yet another gas station close to an aquifer, and a riparian area that [provides] this community’s drinking water, should be of utmost concern,” Marcie Maichle, who lives in the Ponderosa Estates community adjacent to the auto auction, said.

The developer must submit more detailed preliminary and site plans for the project, should the concept plan be approved.

Davenport encouraged audience members to contact the planning and zoning department about any of their concerns.

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