It was only a matter of time before a developer tested Aberdeen again with an annexation proposal from the area of the Wetlands Golf Course that been rejected during a contentious fight that a prominent Harford County zoning attorney referred to as the city's "trauma."
The wait wasn't two years. Builder/developer Clark Turner plans to ask the city of Aberdeen to annex a 38-acre parcel at 830 Gilbert Road and rezone it from agricultural to R-1, referred to by some as low density residential, to allow him to build 50 single-family houses that will be priced in the $400,000 to $450,000 range.
Turner and John Gessner, his well-known attorney, presented the annexation plan at an informational meeting Tuesday evening at Aberdeen City Hall and answered questions from some in the group of about 20 people who gathered for the hour-long session.
"We are really giving you much more information at this point than you would normally get," Turner said about midway through the meeting. "I was trying to be more upfront at this stage."
Turner told the audience he expects to have four or five different styles of houses in the development, including ranchers and two-story units, that would be between 2,200 and 3,200 square feet. He also showed the audience a drawing of how the development would be configured and reiterated that he would be only asking the city for annexation and approval to build what he was presenting during the informational meeting.
"At this point," Gessner said, "this is all conceptual."
For some of those at the meeting, who fought long and hard to defeat the annexation and development of the Wetlands Golf Course, it wasn't the 50 houses Turner wants to build, but rather the specter that this is merely the beginning of a renewed fight to stop a larger development they feel they've already defeated.
"It seems like this is a foot in the door," Cheryl Schwind, who lives in the neighborhood to be affected, said during the meeting.
Turner's project is part of the much larger Wetlands redevelopment project that later resurfaced under the name Glengarry.
"I have an option to buy it," Turner said of the 38-acre site which is near the golf course. "I will be the developer."
Gessner said that Turner's venture will be done under the umbrella of 830 Gilbert Road LLC and that Turner will be buying the property from Glengarry Aberdeen LLC, which Sam and Chris Smedley are the principals of; Simons Wetlands LLC, which Tom Simons is the principal; and Benfield Wetlands LLC, which Charles Benfield is the principal.
"We understand the history and the concern you have for this project," Gessner said. "I can't imagine after all the trauma" of the first Wetlands fight that the mayor and city council would proceed without plenty of community input and discussion.
The original plan asked Aberdeen to annex about 700 acres and rezone them to allow construction of about 1,500 houses and reconfiguration of the Wetlands Golf Course. That project was to be done on land either owned outright or under contract to be purchased by Sam Smedley, the owner of the golf course.
In 2006, Aberdeen's mayor and city council approved the Wetlands annexation and, basically, told those opposed to it "too bad." The opponents fought back, however, and petitioned the annexation to referendum, where in December 2006 it was defeated by a resounding 1,340 to 755 vote.
The following November, opponents took their fight one step further, in a result some still don't accept as being caused by their support of the Wetlands annexation, working to oust then-Mayor Fred Simmons, who was in the middle of his only two-year term, and two of the annexation's staunchest supporters on the city council – Ron Kupferman and Dave Yensan. Another Simmons supporter on the city council, Mike Hiob, returned with the fewest number of votes among the four city council members elected. Current Mayor Mike Bennett beat Simmons after receiving 1,373 votes – a total curiously similar to the 1,340 votes cast the previous December to overturn the Wetlands annexation.
The Wetlands project came back before the mayor and city council under the name Glengarry in 2008-09, but that time the council turned it down by a 3-2 margin, with Bennett casting the deciding vote. Bennett then won re-election in November 2009 by beating Hiob, who cast one of the two pro-Glengarry votes. The other Glengarry supporter on the council, Ron Kupferman, lost his re-election bid, ending a 30-year plus career in city government.
After saying he understands Turner is a new entrant into this years-long controversy, Robert Price, who was one of the leaders of the fight to stop the Wetlands annexation, wasn't swayed in his opposition to the latest proposal.
"It's the same thing, but a different game this time," Price said at Tuesday's meeting. "I will fight it with everything I have."
"It's just going to be for 50 single family homes," Turner said, implying he wouldn't be seeking any further changes.
"You're changing the zoning now!" Tim Klepsic, another meeting attendee, blurted out.
Gessner did little to assuage the fears of those in the audience, presenting a scenario that did, indeed, make Turner's 50-house project appear to be little more than the beginning of the Wetlands development all over again, albeit in smaller parcels rather than in one large project.
Gessner said that Turner has requested that this property be changed from agricultural to low density residential use in the latest Harford County Master Land Use Plan update that is in the works. Neither this parcel, nor any of the others in the Wetlands area, are scheduled for changes in the original master plan proposal, but Gessner said he expects that to change not only for Turner, but also for other parcels in the Wetlands area, as well.
"This won't be the only one," Gessner said. "I represent other clients who own properties in this area."
When pressed for more information about his other clients or their projects, Gessner wasn't forthcoming.
"I'm not at liberty to tell you," Gessner said."I can assure you other requests have been made, or will be made. And they will be granted because it makes sense."
Gessner said this requests are being made to Harford County Executive David Craig's administration and the Harford County Department of Planning and Zoning for inclusion in the proposal that will go before the Harford County Council for its approval. Craig and Turner are close friends, and Turner has been a major financial backer of Craig throughout his political career.
"We are hoping the county council will include this in the master plan," Gessner said.
Gessner and Turner presented two scenarios and timelines – one with annexation and rezoning by Aberdeen and another without annexation and the city's rezoning.
"We're just changing the master plan," Gessner said, adding that Harford's county-wide comprehensive rezoning "won't happen until 2016."
If Aberdeen approves the annexation and rezoning in the time frame established by the city's most recent annexation law, Turner said it would still be early in 2014 before the first of the 50 houses would start appearing. If Aberdeen annexes the property and proposes the rezoning, the Harford County Council also must sign off on the rezoning. Without the county council's approval, which is generally little more than a rubber-stamped formality, the property's rezoning would be subject to a five-year wait before it could take effect.
Regardless of which time frame eventually applies, it's pretty clear this annexation will face some of the same opposition and opponents that the original and larger Wetlands annexation faced before its demise at referendum.