Neighboring residents of West Columbia development want less density

Neighboring residents of a planned development that would build 204 single-family homes on 67 acres of undeveloped land in west Columbia are requesting that the developer reduce the density of the property.

The development, called Simpson Oaks, is a mix of detached homes and townhouses that would be built on woodlands and open space adjacent to the headquarters of W.R. Grace, a technology company that sells chemicals and specialty building materials, off of Grace Drive near the intersection of Route 32 and Cedar Lane.

Current plans for the project would build 102 detached homes, to be built on lots ranging from 7,000 square feet to 9,000 square feet, and 102 townhouses, to be built on lots ranging from 1,900 square feet to 2,000 square feet, by 2020.

Of the 102 townhouses, 21 would be moderate income housing units priced at affordable rates for households with salaries at 80 percent of the area's median income. 

Although the developer, GF Columbia LLC, a subsidiary of Greenfield Partners located in Norwalk, CT, argues the lot sizes on the development are comparable to lot sizes in the neighboring area, residents are pushing the County's Zoning Board to reduce the density of the development. 

Approximately a dozen residents spoke at a Wednesday public meeting of the Zoning Board, which is made up of the five County Council members, where GF Columbia presented the plan.

Among them was Kathy Chavers, who serves on the River Hill Village Board. Chavers said she and others are concerned the density would "put undo stress on the community," and that one unit per acre, which would significantly reduce the development, "would be ideal."

The meeting is part of a new zoning review process adopted by the County Council last year that allows zoning changes outside the traditional comprehensive zoning process, which happens once ever 10 years.

The process allows for properties to be rezoned into "Community Enhancement Floating" (CEF) Districts if it provides "design features and enhancements which are beneficial to the community." 

In this project, the first to go through the CEF process, the developer is proposing making connections in the nearby pathway system that would provide access to the nearby Robinson Nature Center as well as the Middle Patuxent River.

The developer is also offering to build a bike lane and sidewalks along Grace Drive, in addition to donating 30 acres of open space to the county for use by the Department of Parks and Recreation.

There were mixed emotions on the proposed development from the five Zoning Board members. 

Jen Terrasa, Courtney Watson and Greg Fox said the development was too dense, and were skeptical that there were enough amenities for the project to truly qualify as a community enhancement.

Calvin Ball said the developers and the residents were "not far off," and that he's confident a compromise can be reached.

Mary Kay Sigaty, chair of the Zoning Board, said access to the river and pathways are good community enhancements, and also asked the developer to minimize the cutting down of trees.

The hearing marked the beginning of the process for GF Columbia, which will have to present updated plans to the county's Design Advisory Panel and Planning Board before returning to the Zoning Board for final approval.

According to Sigaty, the developer has until May to return to the Zoning Board for final approval because the entity can not meet, by law, between June and December due to the upcoming elections. 

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