Community leaders opposed to a mixed-use development near Lake Roland scored a symbolic victory last night when hundreds of residents showed up at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Ruxton to voice their opposition to the project.
The Village of Lake Roland, a six-acre proposed development at 6241-47 Falls Road that includes a six-story apartment building, retail space, restaurants, office space and parking in the Bare Hills neighborhood, has been brought forward by Vanguard Development, which bought the land for $4.25 million early last year.
Residents expressed concerns about the development infringing on the beauty and tranquility of Lake Roland, increasing traffic on Falls Road, straining water and sewage systems and more. Hollins Organic and assorted small office buildings currently sit on the parcel.
The board of the neighborhood association, the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association (RRLRAIA), worked last summer with Vanguard to “down-zone” the property from industrial to mixed use. Although the association’s negotiations resulted in restrictions — the original zoning would have allowed a big box store and a gas station — some members felt the board had not opposed the development aggressively enough nor kept the membership fully apprised of discussions with the developer.
Those unhappy with the board’s actions called for last night’s special meeting to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on the project in its current form. Although members cast their ballots at the close of the meeting and organizers did not tally the votes before the end of the night, a show of hands indicated overwhelming opposition.
The proxy votes, which could represent as many as 2000 members, have yet to be counted.
A vote on a bylaw amendment to prevent the association from supporting any future zoning change without membership approval was withdrawn, to applause, at the start of the meeting.
RRLRAIA president Clark Parriott asserted that the board had successfully advocated for better zoning on the project and earned a seat “at the table.” A vote to oppose was premature, he argued, telling residents they will have an opportunity to voice their opposition as the county planning review process unfolds.
Former Legg Mason CEO Mark Fetting, who is one of the creators of SaveLakeRoland.com, said that Lake Roland is “a true gem… as valuable as Fort McHenry is to Federal Hill.” He urged residents in the room to protect it.
Parriott reminded members that the gathering was not an “input meeting” and that the principal developer on the project, Len Weinberg, co-founder of Vanguard, was not in the room and, therefore, could not hear their complaints.
Still, residents could not resist.
The height of the apartment building, use of protected land for parking, failure to conduct a traffic study and other details of the plan — which the developer has amended once to address neighborhood concerns — were roundly criticized.
Veteran real estate lawyer John P. “Jack” Machen told the crowd that opposition to the plan was not premature at all and that it would, in fact, “strengthen the board’s position.” Many in the seats nodded in agreement.
“We are not against development for development’s sake,” said landscape architect Carol Macht, “but we want smart development.” She cited sensitivity to environmental issues as one of her major concerns.
“We’ve talked a lot about Robert E. Lee (Park),” said Hugh Baugher. “Sorry. I’m still miffed about that,” referring to the decision to change the park’s name to Lake Roland. Returning to the issue at hand, he said, “this will mandate the destruction of Falls Road as we know it.”
After several accusations by commenters of lack of transparency by the board, Ward Classen, a Ruxton resident, asked the board to disclose its conflicts of interest, if any. Parriott agreed to do so.
No supporters of the project came to the mic.
One board member who asked for anonymity defended the board’s actions in an email following the meeting:
The land was purchased, and the zoning laws are what they are. Len Weinberg has the right to build on the parcel. Without the association’s efforts, he could have built whatever the zoning laws permit, which would be much worse than what he is talking about, which is not yet a final plan. The 2010 Community Plan that has been referenced is an aspirational document, a what-if-we-could-have-everything-we-want plan. The association has no control over whether property owners comply with that plan or not.
The controversy pits against each other the powerful residents who live in the million-dollar homes that line Lake Roland and surrounding neighborhoods. Doug Hoffberger, a Ruxton resident and president of the Hoffberger Family Foundation, was there. Fetting, a well-known businessman and philanthropist, lives near the proposed project and leads the opposition. Tom Bozzuto, chairman of the Bozzuto Group, was seated in the crowd. Commenters identified themselves as former or current real estate lawyers at top firms, community activists, landowners and the like. State Sen. James Brochin was in the crowd.
“How did we become adversaries?” board member Gina Adams asked, rhetorically. “We all love Lake Roland (Park) and want the absolute best for the area. This is a process.”
In an interview after the meeting, Fetting made clear that he is not against all development on the property. “I want less intensity,” he said, suggesting that a four-story apartment building rather than a six-story one would be a welcome adjustment. He also said the original plan called for residential units on the west side of Falls Road, fewer units and less density. He and his followers hope to revisit that plan.
Some in attendance were turned off by the tone of the comments. One resident who lives near the church surveyed the crowd and, noting the full parking lot, observed that the place of worship is never as full for Sunday services. “I guess vengeance is a bigger draw than salvation,” he quipped.
No further meetings on the project have been scheduled because the development company has not submitted its final plan to the county. Once it does, the county will be required to hold a series of community input meetings, a representative of the Baltimore County Development Management office said.
With both sides smart, savvy and well-funded — and with a popular natural resource in the balance — it appears differences will not be resolved anytime soon.
Disclaimer: Susan Dunn, the author, lives in the RRLRAIA catchment area. She is not a dues-paying member of the organization and did not cast a vote.