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Rezoning sought for higher building, less parking on old Bel Air school site

Owner claims town made a mistake in assigning Gordon Street site's current zoning

The owner of the former school system headquarters property on Gordon Street in Bel is trying to get the site's zoning changed to a classification that that could better accommodate the four-story apartment building he proposed that the town's board of appeals rejected this fall.

John Zoulis, who bought the 45 E. Gordon St. property from Harford County government at auction in February for $101,000, has submitted a request to the Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners to rezone the one-acre property to B-2 Central Business District from B-2A Central Business Gateway, based on a legal error the town supposedly made when it zoned the property B-2A in 2009.

B-2 zoning allows for a building that could be up to 10 feet and one and one-half stories higher than what is permitted under the property's current zoning: 45 feet and three stories, according to Planning Director Kevin Small.

The B-2 zoning Zoulis is requesting allows buildings that are 55 feet and up to 4 1/2 stories tall, Small said.

An ordinance to correct the alleged error, and thus approve the B-2 zoning, was introduced at Monday night's town meeting. A public hearing is scheduled for Monday, Jan. 4, during the next town meeting.

"The applicant is very cognizant of the fact that the building elevation was not well-received," Small said. "This [ordinance] is not related to the project as far as I'm concerned. But I'm sure in the mind of the applicants they would like to have the additional building height, which is what the B-2 would give them."

In October, the town board of appeals rejected a variance request for a 55-foot, four-story building, with 25 apartments, which would have exceeded the maximum height permitted by the B-2A zoning. The building would have been erected next to the two-story academy building, which would have been renovated to accommodate seven apartments, with the two buildings connected by a walkway on the second floor.

The same basic uses are permitted under both zoning classifications, but in addition to allowing for a higher building, the B-2 zoning also has different setback and parking requirements.

Under the existing B-2A zoning, the setback is 15 feet, regardless of the a building's height, according to Small. Under B-2, there is no setback for buildings three stories or less and 20 feet for anything higher than three stories.

The B-2 zoning Zoulis, a Linthicum-based property developer, has asked for does not require any on-site parking, although that is up the planning commission and ultimately the board of town commissioners to approve. Any off-site parking must be within 500 feet of the building, Small said. In the B-2A zoning, 50 percent of the parking requirement must be on-site, while the remaining 50 percent can be off.

Under his first plan, Zoulis was required to have 80 parking spaces (2.5 for each of the 32 units), but sought permission from the town for just 61 spaces – 42 on the academy property and 19 more in the lot behind the headquarters of the neighboring Historical Society of Harford County, pending an agreement for a parking easement with the Historical Society.

The site was zoned R-3 residential until 2009, when it was subdivided from the neighboring Bel Air Elementary School property. During the comprehensive zoning review by the town the same year, the academy property was zoned B-2.

Zoulis is arguing the town made a legal mistake when it zoned the property B-2A and that it should have been B-2.

After the school system vacated the building in 2006, the county and town governments struggled to solicit redevelopment proposals for the site, a process that dragged out as the economy faltered.

In 2014, the county declared the property surplus and put it up for auction, with the stipulation the buyer could not tear down the academy building, unless authorized by the county or other governing body for public safety reasons.

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