Eldersburg: On one hand…

To be clear at the very outset, this is a story with no bad guys. Not the property owner, not the new grocery store company, not the people who own homes around the property and not the Carroll County government.  No villains.  No victims per se, although not everybody will be pleased with how all this turns out. Just people, with legitimate concerns, protecting and promoting their interests, with somewhat opposing points of view. It’s just life. It isn’t nor does it have to be contentious the way it is in Washington, just a few miles down the road. This is Carroll County, Maryland we’re talking about, where good, kind people live and work.

As you know if you’ve been following this particular issue, the owner/developer of a prominent property on Liberty Road wants to sell a portion of its 22.6 acres to a company (LIDL) that wants to build what will be the seventh grocery store in Eldersburg. Common sense tells us that seven grocery stores is probably one or two too many for a town of 30,000 people. When the new ALDI that is opening across the street and LIDL are up and running, at least one, maybe even two of the grocery stores nearby will cut back and may even close. It’s an example of development without growth, of predatory behavior by the new grocery store chain that adds nothing to the Eldersburg economy, but will, in all likelihood, result in some people losing their jobs in the affected shopping centers that lose business to the new guy in town.

In order to sell some of its property to LIDL, the property owner needs to increase the maximum store size he’s allowed from 10,000 SF to 40,000 SF. The property owner tried to get just its property re-zoned, but that didn’t happen. And so the property owner asked the County to approve a “text amendment” that would increase the maximum store size for all B-NR (Business – Neighborhood Retail) properties in Carroll County to 40,000 SF.

No, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that every similarly zoned property and all the people and businesses who live and operate around all those properties in the County should be affected just to accommodate the single sale of 5+ acres for a grocery store Eldersburg doesn’t even need. But then the property owner didn’t think it had any choice and the County is considering it.

One of the arguments in favor of the text amendment is that it’s consistent with new zoning classifications for commercial properties that the County is thinking about – but those new classification haven’t been debated and approved yet. So that argument is more than a tad premature.

Well, for whatever reasons, the County responded by recommending increasing maximum store size, not just to the 40,000 SF that the property owner requested, but to a whopping 100,000 SF – which is large enough to accommodate most “big box” stores. To which, many residents who live in the condos and other homes adjacent to the property responded by saying, “What?! It was, and is, and understandable response.

Some people make the argument that there is no difference between having, let’s say, 10 stores that are no more than 10,000 SF in size, or 20 stores having only 5000 SF, versus one store giant store of 100,000 SF. “So, what the heck? Let’s do it. Let’s allow a 100,000 SF store.” Does it really not make any difference? We’ll leave that for another article.

So, here’s the crux of problem… Should a commercial property owner be given permission to sell and put something on a property, the size of which exceeds the limits of the current zoning? Let’s think about it.

1. The number of affected parties.

On one hand, we have the owner/developer who is a company and doesn’t actually live on the property in question. Or even in the County. Or – in the case of LIDL, the company that is buying its chunk of the property from the current property owner – in the State. LIDL doesn’t actually live anywhere. It’s a company, with a headquarters, but not a house.

On the other hand, we have 100+ residents who have homes butt-up against the property in question and many more nearby. And they, for the most part, actually live there, on the properties they own.

Just some of the homes bordering the property we’re talking about.

2. The investment.

On one hand, we have the owner/developer who spent a great deal of money to buy various properties and assemble them into the total 22.6 acres that we’re talking about.

On the other hand, we have 100+ residents in the affected area whose collective investment is considerably greater than what the developer has invested to date.

3. Available options.

On one hand, the owner/developer has many ways it can earn a very respectable profit by developing its vacant lot within the current B-NR zoning. It doesn’t have to sell a portion of it to a company to open a seventh grocery store that no one in Eldersburg needs or wants. There are many alternative ways it can develop its property – most of which won’t require a change in zoning, particularly in the form of a text amendment that affects all similarly zoned properties in the County.

On the other hand, the residents have only two choices… They can roll with whatever the County allows the owner/developer to do or they can move.

4. Damages.

On one hand, it can be argued that, because the owner/developer has many options, not being able to sell a piece of its property to LIDL for a 36,185 SF grocery store and 187 parking spaces will not inflict any serious harm.

On the other hand, the families who live adjacent to the property, who bought their homes with the expectation that the vacant property would be “local,” “neighborhood retail,” may suffer significant losses in the form of lower property values and other negative effects on the quality of their lives related to traffic, lighting, noise, crime and other considerations.

And so it’s up to the Members of the County’s Planning and Zoning Commission and then County Commissioner Doug Howard to figure all this out. That’s a matter of process. But then it’s also up to the 100+ families who live around and near the property to show up at hearings and voice their opinion by calling or writing/emailing their government officials. Because – whatever your opinion or point of view – the louder and more persistent your collective voice, the more likely it is that decision makers will hear what you have to say.

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