Prince Frederick, MD – For the second week in a row the Calvert County Commissioners felt the June heat from a segment of their constituents. The issue this time was a series of changes in the Prince Frederick Zoning Ordinance that appear needed to get a commercial and residential project proposal moving.
The commissioners and the Calvert County Planning Commission conducted a joint public hearing Tuesday evening, June 14 at Calvert Pines Senior Center. Most of the session was spent on proposed measures affecting the Prince Frederick Town Center’s “New Town Subarea.” According to a missive from the Calvert County Department of Community Planning and Building, the zoning amendments would reduce setback requirements while increasing density, maximum building height and maximum building size.
Specifically, the proposal would increase residential density from 14 to 24 dwelling units per acre; increase maximum building height from 50 to 60 feet, increase the maximum permitted building size for home improvement centers, retail commercial buildings and wholesale and/or building material businesses from 25,000 to 150,000 square feet. The modified zoning law would also allow for a garden center up to a maximum of 45,000 square feet in addition to the maximum allowable building size.
The parcel that would be impacted by the change is owned by BARGO LLC, a land use development entity, which also has an exclusive negotiating rights agreement with the county commissioners to development land within the New Town Subarea, including the county-owned parcel where Calvert Middle School was once located. That parcel is envisioned to be developed as Armory Square.
During a staff presentation, Calvert County Department of Economic Development Director Linda Vassallo pointed out that “there will be no big box store on Armory Square.”
During an interview earlier this year, BARGO LLC principal Randy Barrett told The BayNet the entire developed property—totaling over 85 acres—is envisioned to include a home improvement center, a premium grocery story, department stores and a movie theater. Developers have also pledged to build the county a new community center at the site.
Driving the effort to develop the New Town Subarea is data from a survey released five years ago indicating losses in the millions for Calvert County due to residents going out of the jurisdiction to shop and dine. A synopsis of the proposed zoning changes stated that meeting the current demand for additional retail space in the county would result in nearly $2 million in real property tax revenues and approximately 2,500 new jobs.
During comments made at the June 14 hearing, Barrett described the proposed zoning changes as “an opportunity.” He stated that Peterson Companies would likely partner with BARGO LLC to develop the site. Peterson is based in Northern Virginia and most recently developed National Harbor on the Potomac River.
The public hearing produced much support for the development proposal, but even more opposition.
“We don’t want to sell the county down the river,” said Calvert County Farm Bureau President Susie Hance-Wells, who stated there has been “a considerable lack of discussion with the farm community.” Hance-Wells was one of two speakers who labeled the proposed development “spot zoning.”
“Traffic in that area is already out of control,” said Mike King, who owns a mixed-use commercial building across Route 2/4 from the old school property. King also stated he had documented proof that the proposed text amendments were illegal.
“I think big box stores are not what we’re looking for here,” said resident Jeff Klapper.
Local resident Holly Budd expressed doubt that Calvert was losing huge retail dollars to locations like St. Mary’s County. “Is it really going over the bridge or online?” She asked, referring to the trend toward more shopping via the Internet.
One of the more scathing attacks on the plan came from a former county government employee, Miriam Gholl, who worked in the Department of Planning and Zoning for over 30 years. “This is the worst case of spot zoning,” said Gholl, who also labeled the proposal “illegal.”
“The quality of life in Calvert County is much more important in Calvert County than being able to shop in a big box store,” said former county commissioner and state senator Bernie Fowler. “This is the gateway to the county seat. Make it pretty.”
Huntingtown resident David Cole said he was “very opposed” to the zoning changes and opined that the retail market study driving the plan was out of date.
Support for the plan came from members of the local Economic Development Commission. “There is a market demand,” said Tony Distefano. “We’re talking about keeping our dollars in the community.”
“For too long our shopping dollars have been leaving the county,” said Chris Moore, who added he was “fully supportive” of the proposal.
“This has been sitting for seven years and has generated zero dollars,” said Calvert County Chamber of Commerce CEO Bill Chambers of the old school property. He added the county has so far failed to achieve success fulfilling its vision on vibrant town centers.
When it came time to make a decision, the planning commission opted to leave the record open for two weeks and discuss the proposal at its next meeting. In making the motion, planning commission member William Glascock said there was “a substantial amount of new information” regarding the proposed zoning change to warrant a deferral.
County Commissioner Tom Hejl [R – At Large], announced he was making a motion to circumvent the planning commission’s action and approve the zoning change without a recommendation from that panel. A few hours before the public hearing the county commissioners met in open session to adopt a resolution on a policy regarding the processing of amendments to the county zoning ordinance. The resolution passed 3-to-1-to-1, with Commissioner Steve Weems [R – At large] opposed and Commissioner Pat Nutter [R – District 2] abstaining. The action drew catcalls from the audience including a cry of “recall.”
Prior to calling for a vote, Commissioners’ President Evan K. Slaughenhoupt Jr. [R – District 3] revealed the planning commission met in closed session Friday, June 10 and “made a formal recommendation to reject the [zoning ordinance] changes.” Slaughenhoupt contended that the planning commission had violated Maryland’s Open Meeting Law with its action. Planning Commission Vice Chair Mike Phipps stated that he disagreed with Slaughenhoupt’s contention.
Hejl subsequently withdrew his original motion and instead moved to delay the county commissioners’ vote for two weeks with the record left open during that period.
Later, Phipps told The BayNet that the changes made to the proposed zoning ordinance modifications prompted the planning commission’s decision to hold off on offering a recommendation on the amendments.
The planning commission also voted to keep the record open on proposed amendments to Prince Frederick’s Village Subarea land use charts. The commissioners unanimously approved the panel’s recommendation on that issue.
Contact Marty Madden at firstname.lastname@example.org