Prince Frederick big-box retail amendment stalls in public hearing

By TAMARA WARD tward@somdnews.com Twitter: @CalRecTAMARA

Updated Jun 16, 2016

STAFF PHOTO BY TAMARA WARD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A protest sign sits outside the joint public hearing at Calvert Pines Senior Center on Tuesday. Inside, Calvert County citizens voiced their concerns to the county commissioners and planning commission about a proposed text amendment that opens the door for larger big-box retail in the county. The sign reads “NO BIG BOX — What part don’t you understand?”

Scores of people lined up to voice their concern about two proposed text amendments for Calvert County and Prince Frederick zoning ordinances, at a joint public hearing at Calvert Pines Senior Center on Tuesday.

 

The Calvert County Board of County Commissioners and Planning Commission hosted the hearing, in which the big item of interest was the proposed amendment that would potentially open the gateway for larger big-box retail. The end result of the hearing is two more weeks before a decision will be made.

 

The New Town District amendment proposes to increase the maximum permitted building size for home improvement centers, retail commercial buildings and wholesale lumber material businesses from 25,000 square feet to 150,000 square feet in the area slated for development known as Armory Square in Prince Frederick.

 

Additionally, it would allow for a garden center up to a maximum of 45,000 square feet, in addition to the new allowable building size. It also increases residential density from 14 to 24 dwelling units per acre. This was the third iteration of the amendments, initially introduced in November 2015.

 

Economic Development Director Linda Vassallo and Community Planning and Building Deputy Director Mary Beth Cook presented the amendments to a crowd of more than 100 people.

Vasallo justified the proposed changes, estimating there was nearly $460 million in lost retail sales in Calvert County, according to a market retail study that the county conducted in 2011.

 

Reaction was mixed to the results of the county’s market study and the proposed amendments touted as providing more flexibility to promote economic development, attract quality development and respond to market demand.

 

Twenty-five minutes into the hearing, the attendees were allowed to speak for no more than five minutes each. First to the microphone was Frank Smith, an executive board member of the Calvert County Chamber of Commerce. A business owner, Smith was in favor of the text amendments, arguing they will “inject much-needed growth” in the county, which is “now stagnate and needs to be revitalized.”

 

Chamber chair Bill Chambers vocalized his support of the text amendments that he feels will produce jobs and enhance commercial tax revenues within the county. On behalf of the 400-plus chamber businesses representing over 16,000 employees, I ask that you approve the text amendments,” said Chambers.

 

Followed by another comment in favor from realtor Chris Moore, outsiders would be left to believe there was overwhelming support for the amendments crafted to spur economic development in the county. Not so, according to Dana Sneade Banyasz and nearly 17 other speakers before her.

 

Banyasz, 29, had much to say, speaking for her family’s business, Sneade’s Ace Home Center, and the younger generation “who seems to not want to stay in this county.”

 

“We are a member of the Chamber of Commerce. For the [chamber] to get up here and make a statement that all the businesses that are involved in the [chamber] support this, I think is inappropriate. We were never asked whether we supported it or not,” said Banyasz, in contradiction to Chambers’ statement earlier. She concluded the county needs “smart growth,” not this set of text amendments.

 

Former Community Planning and Building planner Miriam Gholl opened up her comment with a definition: “A zoning action which devotes a small area within a district to a use to which the rest of the town is restricted and which is contrary to the master plan and is merely for the benefit of the owners rather than the community as a whole — does that sound like what we’re looking at tonight? That’s spot zoning and that’s illegal. … Start over,” said Gholl, chastising the commissioners for not first updating the 27-year-old master plan.

Gholl’s testimony drew laughs and cheers from the crowd, but struck a chord with the commissioners, especially Commissioners’ President Evan Slaughenhoupt (R), who in response later lashed out to the commission.

 

“Those accusations are horrendous. You want to talk about something illegal? This past Friday, the planning commission sitting over there … made a formal recommendation to the county commissioners … to reject the changes. That meant they had an illegal meeting not entertaining public comment against the Open Meetings Act,” said Slaughenhoupt. “Want to talk about something illegal? The planning commission has biased themselves and compromised themselves.”

 

“So that’s why you are punishing them?” questioned Gholl. “Can they defend themselves?”

Slaughenhoupt threatened to have Gholl escorted out of the hearing for her outbursts.

 

Planning Commission Vice Chair Michael Phipps later addressed Slaughenhoupt’s comments by simply saying, “We respectfully disagree.”

Small business owner and member of the Small Business Commission Anthony Williams stepped up to the microphone and asked for a moment of silence for the Orlando shooting before expressing his desire for the BOCC to move forward with the approval of the text amendments. Williams was passing out buttons outside the hearing earlier trying to garner support.

 

A Prince Frederick resident and Washington Metropolitan Police Department detective who said she moved to Calvert County in 2000 because of the low crime said the crime rate will go up with rental properties and big-box stores. She also noted there was no plan for the additional law enforcement needed for the expansion the amendments would bring.

“What I feel tonight is that a group of builders have gotten together and they know what they want and in whatever way they can present it to us with their statistics [and] with all of their ways,” said lifelong resident Jenny Nash in the last public comment of the night. “I feel like they treated all of us like sheep being led into the fold to be slaughtered. And I feel like they are trying to do this for their own gain and not the welfare of the county.”

 

After ninety-five minutes, 35 individuals had expressed their support in favor or opposition. Common themes in the comments in favor of the text amendment was the need for more workforce housing, access to nearby shopping and providing an economic boost for local businesses. There were a dozen citizens definitively encouraging the passage of the amendment.

 

With the roughly 23 comments critical of the amendment, themes such as the need to retain the county’s rural legacy, lack of compelling data, fear of increased traffic on Route 4, overpopulation and replicating Waldorf surfaced over and over again.

 

There were some citizens who were not wholly opposed to the amendment and chose not to rush to judgment, but asked for more time to sufficiently research the effort. Others submitted comments, zoning recommendations and petitions in hardcopy form.

 

The piece de resistance was when former state senator and commissioner Bernie Fowler commanded the room and commandeered more than his five minutes to thank the commissioners for their commitment to public service, and then told them to think long and hard before making the quick decision to pass the amendment.

 

“’Worse than being blind would be to have sight and no vision,’” said Fowler, quoting Helen Keller. “I don’t think that fits you guys. I really don’t. … The quality of life in Calvert is much more important than having the convenience of being able to walk to a big-box store.”

“An overwhelming majority of the people of Calvert County that vote do not approve of this,” said Fowler in closing. “Remember when you make your vote, listen to your heart.”

 

The room roared with applause and cheers, which is prohibited by the rules of the hearing, often disregarded by the audience.

 

After the final public comment, the amendment was put to a vote before the planning commission. Chair Maurice Lusby recused himself from the hearing earlier due to a conflict of interest with his hardware store located on Main Street in Prince Frederick.  Commission member Carolyn McHugh was not in attendance and the BOCC has yet to replace RoxAnne Cumberland, who left the commission a little more than a month ago. The BOCC has vetted a half-dozen commission appointments since May 17, including four earlier that day. Phipps facilitated the meeting, leaving only commission members Robert Reed, Bill Glascock and Greg Kernan to motion and vote on any measure.

 

Glascock proposed to keep the record open on the first text amendment for two weeks to allow for consideration of the comments and suggestions provided during the hearing. The motion was seconded and unanimously approved.

 

Commissioners’ Vice President Tom Hejl (R) exercised authority for a new resolution passed earlier in the day, and introduced a motion to approve the amendments without consideration of the planning commission.

 

Frustrated with the “delays and deferrals” and the lack of movement on the proposed zoning ordinance changes, the commissioners passed a resolution earlier that day allowing them to vote to bypass the planning commission if they take longer than 180 days to forward text amendments to the BOCC.

 

The resolution was introduced by the county attorney and passed by the commissioners during the regular meeting earlier in the day. The resolution was not an original agenda item and was voted on during an afternoon session that was also not on the agenda.

 

The resolution was made retroactive to Jan. 1, 2015, 530 days or roughly a year and half earlier than the resolution’s introduction. 

According to county attorney John Norris, the addition was presented during the 9 a.m. staff meeting that was open to the public and the agenda was subsequently amended at 10 a.m. to include the resolution.

 

“The resolution only sets forth the policy and procedures implementing existing provisions in the zoning ordinance regarding text amendments that clarifies that the planning commission does not have a veto authority over the county commissioners and what amendments maybe take them to the public,” said Norris in an emailed statement prior to the hearing.

 

The resolution passed three in favor, one opposed, with one abstention. Hejl, Commissioner Mike Hart (R) and Slaugenhoupt voted in favor of the resolution. Commissioner Pat Nutter (R) abstained from the vote, and Commissioner Steve Weems (R) voted against the resolution.

Members of the planning commission were not aware of the resolution before its introduction or after its passage prior to the hearing.

During the evening hearing, Hart seconded Hejl’s motion to bypass the planning commission’s suggestion and move forward with approving the amendment. However, Nutter was not going to follow suit.

 

“I just do not want to see another strip mall,” said Nutter. “At this point, until I get some other questions answered, I am going to follow along with the planning commissioner and abstain from voting.”

 

The crowd jeered and demanded Nutter vote no. The frustrated group often took the liberty to vocalize and even heckle the commissioners while they spoke. Some even called for a recall of a commissioner. The crowd was generally supportive of the planning commission.

In a surprise move, a frustrated Hejl withdrew his original motion to bypass the commission.

 

“I’m going to withdraw the motion for two weeks — two weeks. If you can supply more information to change the minds up here, then fine; submit that information. Don’t repeat the same things you said tonight, that ‘we just want a rural county.’ Submit facts,” stressed Hejl.

Subsequently, Hejl submitted a new motion in support of the planning commission’s recommendation to keep the public record open for another two weeks and to make a decision at that time.

 

Hart seconded the motion, and moments after the commissioners unanimously approved the motion, nearly three-fourths of the room loudly vacated it.

 

Not on the original agenda for the public hearing was an item to allow for commercial transferrable development rights. The item was briefly up for discussion, but fell flat. Earlier in the hearing, the commissioners approved the historic district designation of James O. Lore Cottages.

Another amendment, proposing to eliminate the requirement for housing construction that at least 50 percent of the site is reserved for commercial office and industrial use within the Village District, only heard one opposing speaker.

 

That amendment was also deferred for two weeks, keeping the record open for public comment by both the commission and the BOCC. The hearing was abruptly adjourned after final vote.

 

Post-hearing, Kernan and Glascock acknowledged the comments expressed during the hearing were expected and the final outcome remains unknown for another two weeks. Phipps shared he wants to give the citizens an opportunity to be heard.

 

Only three weeks on the job, new Community Planning and Building Director Mark Willis would not comment on the perceived discourse between the planning commission and BOCC, but did acknowledge his role in facilitating communication between the two entities.

 

“My job is to be the liaison between the planning commission and the commissioners,” said Willis, acknowledging he works for the BOCC and that communication will be key to successful planning in the county.

 

Citizens have until close of business (4:30 p.m.) on Tuesday, June 28. Mail written comments to Maureen Frederick, clerk to the Board of County Commissioners, at 175 Main St., Prince Frederick, MD 20678, or submit them via email at frederml@co.cal.md.us.

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