Eldersburg Town Hall Meeting Update

Long story short…

Hi. The issue on the table is the Planning Department’s reliance upon Big Box Store commercialization in Eldersburg as a means for growing Carroll County. They should be concentrating on bringing business and manufacturing employers to the County, but commercialization is much easier and faster.

Economic development should be a three legged stool under which each of the legs is equally important. One leg is local government. Another leg is the developers with the property and resources to make development happen. (That’s why they’re called “developers.”) And the third leg should be the people, the families who live in Eldersburg and whose investment in their homes and community is vast and well-deserving of respect and consideration. The problem is, the County and individual developers are organized and have resources while individuals generally do not. And that’s why we elect Commissioners to represent us.

Doug Howard represents Eldersburg on the Board of Commissioners. He’s already stood up once to stop a zoning “text amendment” that would have increased individual store sizes throughout the County. Good for him and Eldersburg, but it’s not over yet. The County Planning Department is still pushing hard for large store commercialization.

So go to Commissioner Howard’s Town Hall Meeting. If you don’t, he won’t know how to represent your interests when the Board of Commissioners vote to approve the rezoning of Eldersburg.

Whatever your point of view, you should be there. You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want. Just showing up, with your friends and neighbors, sends a message. And that message is that rezoning is important and that people matter just as much as government planners and developers.

See you there. You can stop reading now, if you like. Otherwise, here’s the full monty…

Let’s start with a short list of the principal players in our story…

The County Planning Department which is responsible for zoning – and in need of a significant upgrade. The acting head of Planning, Lynda Eisenberg, may be up that task. Her predecessor, Phil Hagar, was not.

The Board of Commissioners. Good, well meaning, effective people – especially District 5 (Eldersburg/Sykesville) Commissioner Howard – but they’re too reliant upon the Planning Department. The Board needs the advice of outside consultants ¬for an independent review of planning and for impact analysis which is essential to effective planning, but not something the County does. “Impact analysis” asks and answers the question, “What will the effects, on the people and local economy, of this or that government program, including changes in zoning?”

Various developers, also good people, including the owner of 1503 Liberty Road, 22.6 acres currently zoned BN-R which limits individual store sizes to 10,000 SF.

The property runs along Liberty Road, between Georgetown Blvd. on the left and Homeland Drive on the right. (Most of it looks like a giant right foot.) Those are the Homeland Condominium buildings running along the left edge of Homeland Drive.

This particular developer tried to have just his one property rezoned. That didn’t happen, but he’s appealing the Court’s decision. And then he introduced what’s called a zoning “text amendment.” But the Board of Commissioners, led by Commissioner Doug Howard, refused to approve the amendment by a vote of 4 to 1. And now the developer is pushing the County to put the new C3 zoning in effect on his property. C3 removes any upper limit to individual store size.

The people. That would be you. What leverage do you have? Who cares about how much you’ve invested in your home and community? That’s why you need a Town Hall Meeting, to raise your hand, to tell Commissioner Howard what’s on your mind.

And there are these key elements…

The Carroll County Master Plan, approved in 2014, that provides overall direction to development in the County.

The Freedom Community Comprehensive Plan that will elaborate Master Plan implementation in south Carroll County, including Eldersburg and Sykesville. This Comprehensive plan should have been finalized and passed years ago, but still hasn’t.

The current draft seriously flawed, primarily because it’s planning without impact analysis and because its a “supply side” approach to economic development based on increased commercialization that doesn’t work. Retail activity is an important component of a local economy, but it doesn’t lead or generate real growth in jobs, household income and population.

A complete redo of the County’s zoning classifications and zoning map which, we’re told, is months, maybe a full year away from completion and implementation. At which time, lots of stuff is going to be rezoned.

• And, most importantly, three new zoning classifications, C1, C2 and C3. The “C” stands for commercial.

C1 limits commercial development to stores that cannot, individually, exceed 10,000 SF. This is the same as the current B-NR (Business – Neighborhood Retail) zoning that C1 will replace.

C2 allows stores up to 100,000 SF.

C3 allows stores that are, well, as large as anyone can fit on their property. Really Big Box Stores like Costco, Lowe’s and Walmart Supercenters.

Okay, here’s the deal.

(Are you ready or do you need an intermission? Maybe some popcorn and a cherry Coke?)

• The County’s Planning Department has a problem. Population growth in Carroll County has been flat over the past decade. That’s a problem because the County needs to grow population in order to grow revenues.

• Unfortunately, the Planning Department’s solution is a commercial “Field of Dreams.”

Remember the movie? “If you build it, they will come.” But that was a fantasy. Eldersburg is a real life place. Just because you zone a lot of property for Big Box Stores, doesn’t mean they’ll come. And if they do come, there’s no knowing for sure that they’ll succeed. (Can anyone out there remember Circuit City?) And even if they do, succeed that is, it’s not likely their success will stimulate population growth.

What these Big Box Stores will do is pull retail customer traffic from neighboring counties and away from established, mostly smaller businesses in Carroll County. And they’ll do it at the expense of Eldersburg residents whose homes will be less valuable, who will spend more time in traffic and… Well, you can just imagine.

County planners are so anxious for large store commercial growth in Eldersburg that they have asked the Board of Supervisors to approve the new C1, C2 and C3 zoning classifications separately, ahead of approving the entire Comprehensive Plan and zoning map. What kind of planning is that?

Planning is supposed to be a fully integrated process. How can you plan just the commercial component of a community without, at the same time, also planning residential, non-retail business and industrial development? You can’t. So why is the Planning Department asking the Board to approve just the commercial zoning? Right now, instead waiting for the entire process to play out?

Why the rush? Probably for several reasons. Certainly growth by “Invasion of the Big Box Stores” is one of them, near the top of their list.

And then there is the one property, 1503 Liberty Road, that we keep talking about. The owner/developer wants to sell 4.7 acres to LIDL (“leedle”) for a seventh full-size grocery store in Eldersburg. For more than a year now, LIDL has been waiting for that property to be rezoned and we’re guessing they’re running out of patience. To close his sale to LIDL, the owner needs for his property to be rezoned from B-NR (10,000 SF maximum store size) to at least C2 for stores up to 100,000 SF. Good news for his total 22.6 acres, the County wants to rezone his property all the way to C3 to accommodate stores even greater than 100,000 SF. Not so good news for the people living around and near 1503 Liberty Road.

• Residents in the neighborhood are, of course, resisting this rezoning and they should. The counter-argument is that, “Hey, they knew they were moving next to a commercially zoned property. What’s their problem?”

The answer to that question is one that Commissioner Howard needs to hear in no uncertain terms at Tuesday’s Town Hall Meeting. The answer is that, sure, the people living around 1503 Liberty Road knew there was commercialization in the neighborhood. But it’s not commercialization per se that’s the problem. It’s the increase from 10,000 SF to 100,000 SF and larger stores that’s going to trash their neighborhood. It’s the change in zoning that they couldn’t have and shouldn’t have had to anticipate. “…Some planners in Westminster get up one morning and decide to change the zoning in Eldersburg – and guess who eats the impact of that brainstorm?” If those planners actually lived in the neighborhood, would they be as quick to increase zoning to C2 or C3?

Increasing maximum store size from 10,000 SF to unlimited is unfair. It’s hurtful. And it’s a poor excuse for “planning” that doesn’t accomplish the County’s objective.

Thanks for stopping by EvenBetterPlaces.org.  See you at the meeting!

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