The wooded site east of The Falls apartment building and a gas station near Falls Road and Northern Parkway. Photo by Ed Gunts.

A recent zoning board hearing about the proposed Claiborne Senior Living community showed the wide range of opinions people have about development in North Roland Park, and the development process in Baltimore in general.

In a two-part meeting, members of the city’s Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals indicated they could support plans for The Claiborne at Roland Park, a $25 million, three-story residential care facility for about 120 people proposed for 12 acres near the intersection of Falls Road and Northern Parkway, with a mix of assisted living and memory care apartments.

The four-member board came to a preliminary decision on Oct. 11 after listening to nearly six hours of public testimony on Aug. 24. Developers, planning and design experts and community residents all shared views about what they think should happen with the heavily-wooded, steeply-sloping site, which is just east of The Falls at Roland Park apartment building and has never been developed.

The contract purchaser, Claiborne Senior Living of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, is seeking a height variance so it can build a structure taller than current zoning allows – between 43 and 44 feet high rather than the allowed 35 feet – and a conditional use variance allowing a residential facility with assisted living units, a building type not currently permitted on the property.

The board’s decision is preliminary because its members still must approve a written resolution summing up the position they took on Oct. 11 – a process expected to take several weeks. A neighboring property owner, Hunter Cochrane, has vowed to appeal the zoning board’s final decision if it’s in Claiborne’s favor, an action that likely would hold up construction while the case is heard in court.

The hearing was ordered by the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, after Cochrane appealed a 2021 ruling in favor of Claiborne and a judge sided with Cochrane and remanded the case to the zoning board. This time, the board scheduled the Aug. 24 entire meeting solely to hear testimony about Claiborne’s project, a step it rarely takes. In most of its meetings, the zoning board has between one dozen and two dozen cases on its docket.

Pros and cons

The hearing in August provided a rare glimpse of how the zoning appeals process works in Baltimore, what’s at stake with the Claiborne site, and why its development has become such a controversial issue for many North Baltimore residents.

It started with testimony in support of the project from the development team and representatives of community groups that support the project. A Poplar Hill resident, speaking for himself and his wife, suggested a “no build” option. The board then heard from two residents who live close to the proposed construction site and oppose the project, Cochrane and Betsy Boykin, as well as a land planner hired by Cochrane to scrutinize Claiborne’s plans, James Patton.

Speaking in support of Claiborne’s application were representatives of the Lehr Stream Neighborhood Association and the Sabina-Mattfeldt Community Improvement Association. The North Roland Park Improvement Association and the Poplar Hill Association have also taken stands in support of the Claiborne’s project.

Robert Williams, president of the Lehr Stream Neighborhood Association, summarized the views of his group and as well as leaders of North Roland Park and Poplar Hill organizations.

He told the board that if the property is going to be developed, the majority of neighbors have indicated they’d rather see Claiborne’s project than a larger building previously proposed by another developer, Blue Ocean — a $40 million, six-level structure with 148 apartments.

Williams acknowledged that residents have a range of opinions, but he said the consensus is that Claiborne’s project would have less of an adverse impact on the surrounding area than Blue Ocean’s.

“Our members have talked a lot over many years about this site. We understand this proposal,” he told the board. “In terms of what the community gets, the community feels like there are a lot of benefits to the Claiborne proposal. That’s not to say that nobody objects. People think it could be more beautiful, less beautiful. People like open space. People think as long as it doesn’t affect them, they don’t care. So it’s the normal neighborhood smorgasbord, if you will, of opinion.”

Residents considered what impact Claiborne’s project will have not only on the 12-acre construction site but the surrounding area, Williams said.

“We’ve thought about it not only as this proposal but also concerning what other possibilities could be here, and the community was concerned about increasing the density in terms of neighborhood resources – schools, stores and so forth,” he said.

“We were concerned that the city has a process that is different, maybe, than what we would like, but it’s zoning and we have to accept it,” he said. “When we looked at the other proposals from the prior developer and others that were brought into the community, they were for much denser housing.”

‘A right…to develop’

The Baltimore zoning board meets on Aug. 24. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Williams noted that the adjoining property owners could have gotten together and purchased the site if they wanted to block any development at all, but they haven’t.

“The way it is now, we haven’t bought it,” he said. “Some people have talked about buying it, but we haven’t bought the site, so it’s somebody’s else’s site. They have a right under the law to develop it. They’re asking for what in our view is a small variance on the building itself, and the conditional use seems to us much quieter and much less likely to strain community resources than a large apartment building…It’s very important to us that we not get another 40 feet of building” height so that “all of a sudden you live in a neighborhood that has a high-rise floating in your field of vision that isn’t there now.”

Williams told the board that Claiborne has agreed to certain covenants that were drafted to protect owners of surrounding properties — legal restrictions that will run with the land and will be binding on any successors. They range from banning loud parties on the roof to not developing six of the 12 acres.

“We’ve restricted the use of this facility to assisted living and memory care, and that goes beyond what the building restriction is, and they’ve agreed that that’s what they’re going to use it for and they’ve agreed to bind their successors,” he said. “We think that’s about as tight an agreement as we are likely to get. We’re grateful that they were willing to go all that way.”

Part of what’s driving support for Claiborne’s project, Williams said, is uncertainty about what might happen with the property if Claiborne is “scared away” or doesn’t get approval. He said neighbors are concerned that Blue Ocean might resume efforts to build the larger apartment project it proposed, since it still owns the land.

Given the unknowns, “we think this use, which is quieter and which is a service to the community as we all get older,” is preferable, he told the board.

“If we manage to scare away Claiborne, then we’re back to Blue Ocean,” he said. “But if this goes forward, then we’re not back to Blue Ocean…My understanding from discussions with Blue Ocean is they [Claiborne] hold all the rights. It’s up to them to decide whether or not to close. When they close, we get all this stuff. If they don’t close, we start over.”

If Claiborne drops out and Blue Ocean puts the land up for sale again, the community has concerns about what else the city might approve, and that’s why it supports a project with the restrictions to which Claiborne agreed, Williams said.

If Claiborne’s project doesn’t move ahead, “we think that the city will approve something else that we’re not likely to like,” he said. “We like the conditional use…We know how this is going to be developed. We have something to say about how it’s going to be developed. We’ll be able to be in the process with a designated contact, and we just don’t think it’s likely that we are going to be to do that” with another developer.

Traffic impact

Aaron Levin, representing Sabina-Mattfeldt, said his neighbors are concerned about the Claiborne project’s potential impact on traffic and access to their community, which is on the west side of Falls Road and stretches for a block and a half.

“We have a lot of young children,” he said. “We would not like to see additional traffic if it’s at all possible.”

Levin said Williams summed up the consensus of his neighbors.

“I think our conclusions are what Bob said,” he told the board. “There are some people who would be opposed to anything, any development over there. There are others who are in agreement with the sale and the agreements with Claiborne. And there’s always a certain number of people who don’t care one way or the other. But overall, and we have polled the neighborhood, we’re in favor of what Bob was describing…We have worked closely with Bob Williams and all the other neighborhood groups in working out the covenants and agreements with Claiborne.”

Preserving open space

Andy Brooks, a Poplar Hill resident who said he was speaking for himself and his wife and not the Poplar Hill Association, threw out the idea of building nothing and preserving the land as open space. At the beginning of his remarks, he asked if any of the zoning board members had walked the site, not just driven by. No one said they had.

Given the steep terrain and wooded nature of the site, “most people would say, why would you do anything there?” Brooks said to the board. “My wife and I are interested in the commitment to open space in our city. We don’t have a lot of it. Frankly, from our perspective, the only sensible, caring and forward-thinking stewardship of this property is perhaps half a dozen single-family homes at the most. Ideally, there would be nothing.”

Brooks conceded that the city’s zoning code permits construction on the property. About six of the 12 acres are zoned R-1A, for low-density development such as single-family residences, and the rest is zoned R-6 for higher density development, with structures allowed to rise up to 35 feet. Claiborne is proposing to develop the R-6 land and not develop the R-1A portion.

Brooks echoed Williams in acknowledging that other proposals could be worse.

“At the end of the day, Claiborne’s proposal isn’t terrible, right? And it might be the best we could do,” he said. “But is that the right thing to do, when you think about being stewards of the city and you think about open space and you think about community?

“I’m not sure it’s in the power and purview of this committee to make that decision,” he continued, “but any variance to allow for something to be commercially viable at the expense of open space and at the expense of taking a piece of property that’s probably never been touched, suggests to me maybe we shouldn’t do that. Maybe we should have nothing at all. That’s kind of where we’re coming out, my wife and I.”

Losing habitat and wildlife

Betsy Boykin, a landscape architect, said she owns a house on Cliffhurst Road and that Claiborne’s development would affect her views and the character of her surroundings. She also told the zoning board she believes it would decrease the value of her property values by taking away the “tree canopy” and wildlife that makes it feel more like land out in the country rather than in the city. She said she has already been disturbed by the sound of soil boring equipment and other preliminary sitework.

In its current state, “it is a beautiful place to live,” Boykin said. “It does feel like you’re in the country. If you drive up that road [leading to the property], you wouldn’t know you were in the city.”

Betsy Boykin (right), who lives near the site of the proposed Claiborne senior housing development, sits next to Baltimore zoning board acting executive director Rebecca Lundberg Witt. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Boykin spent much of her testimony talking about the land’s importance to the region’s ecology. She said it’s the southernmost part of an environmental zone that stretches from Lake Roland in Baltimore County down into the city.

“We’ve been talking about buildings and people,” she said. “But what we haven’t talked about is habitat and wildlife. We have owls, blue herons, foxes. Every kind of creature and vegetation you can imagine that is possible in the city, is in this site. The loss of this area and this connectiveness is enormous.”

Boykin said she counted 35 trees on the site with a 24-inch caliper or more, making the area “a significant hardwood forest.” She said the developers’ drawings indicate they plan to put back trees that are much smaller than the ones there now.

“The size tree they have [proposed] are, I think, two and a half inch-caliper,” she testified. “Maybe they are slightly bigger than that [but] it does not replicate a forest. I don’t care how many trees they put on that site. It certainly does not in any of our lifetimes, replicate the forest that is there and the damage that is done. But the biggest problem is the big hole in the middle of this forest that is then filled with impervious surface and loses forever this site as a part of our natural environment.”

The replacement trees won’t block views of the new development either, she said.

“When they say two and half inch caliper…it’s a little tree,” she said. “Doesn’t screen a thing.”

Less vibrant

Like Brooks, Boykin questioned whether anything should be built on the site, with so many other potential construction sites in the city.

“It is an enormous piece of property that’s green,” she said. “It’s never been developed. I don’t understand how it’s possible, in the city of Baltimore, with so many properties, so many already developed properties, that this project needs to be sited here. It doesn’t need to be sited here.”

Baltimore zoning board chair James Fields at the board’s Oct. 11 meeting. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Fields, the zoning board chair, asked Boykin whether the wild animals living on the six acres targeted for development might gravitate to the six acres that don’t get developed.

“No, it will go,” she said. “The initial impact will be the construction activity itself, which is completely disruptive, obviously, not just to me but also to any species that are there.”

But won’t wildlife still be found on the other six acres? Fields asked. “What will happen [to] the rest of the green space that is going to remain?…Do you expect there to be a habitat area there?”

“There will be, but it will be less vibrant,” Boykin said. “I’m sure we will not have any more blue herons or owls.”

Opposed to waivers

Patton, the land development consultant hired by Cochrane, raised questions about the land’s topography, vehicular and pedestrian access to the site, stormwater management and compliance with the city’s fire code.

Cochrane, whose property on Saint Georges Road overlooks the Claiborne parcel, expressed concerns about the project’s impact on traffic, the steep grade of the hill, the loss of trees and streams under the property.

Hunter Cochrane, a neighbor of the site of the proposed Claiborne Senior Housing development, voices his opposition to the project at the Baltimore zoning board’s Aug. 24 meeting. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Cochrane has indicated in past meetings that he would be interested in buying all or part of the 12-acre site and then leaving it undeveloped, if he can purchase it at a price he considers reasonable.

Blue Ocean hasn’t disclosed what Claiborne has offered to pay for the land. Its sale agreement with Claiborne prevents negotiations with Cochrane or other parties as long as it’s in effect.

Cochrane has also said he wouldn’t oppose a project that doesn’t need waivers or variances but he won’t support a project that does – and that would rule out assisted living.

“Very simple, I want the developer to comply with the current zoning,” he told the zoning board in July of 2021. “I’m not opposed to ‘a’ development. I’m opposed to a variant to facilitate what I would consider to be overdevelopment. If it complies with the zoning, I don’t get to have an opinion about the development. You just apply for a construction permit and build. That’s basically my position and it has never varied.”

He said again at the August hearing that is his stance.

‘Limited issues’

Hecker, in a closing summary, asked the board to approve the height variance and the conditional use request despite the objections. She said many of the concerns raised about the project, such as adherence to the city’s fire safety code, are beyond the purview of the zoning board. She stressed that, during the testimony, she didn’t hear anyone say assisted living would be a bad use for the site.

“We are really here on two very limited issues,” she said. “One is the conditional use approval for the residential care facility, and the other is the height variance. There has been a lot of testimony about a lot of other things that are related to the approval process, none of which are really before the board today.”

Hecker said Claiborne agrees to work with city agencies to satisfy any requirements they may have.

“We are happy to stipulate that we will comply with all other legal requirements,” she said. “The fact of the matter is that we aren’t going to get a building permit unless we do.”

J. Carroll Holzer, the attorney for Cochrane, told the board in his closing statement that he was disappointed by the hearing, and that a number of motions he filed before the hearing were denied.

Because the zoning board’s decision had already been reversed once, “I thought maybe things would be different,” he said. “But sitting here and watching and listening to this process, I feel abandoned, if that’s the right word, because of the continued disrespect that is being shown to protestants and citizens that come before you… I am frustrated by the appearance and the fact that anything applicants want, they seem to get.”

Holzer said he believes “this whole city process has been designed to assist the applicant — the developer or the applicant or whatever — to speed this process through…I wish I could say I thought you did better, but I can’t.”

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.