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Business & Developmentby Fern Shen7:01 pmOct 21, 20150

Now with City Hall support, Zoning Board approves Royal Farms gas station

In September, Mayor Rawlings-Blake told opponents, “I heard you” and passed out a planning memo recommending against the project. A month later, City Hall backs Royal Farms and residents are crying foul.

Above: Some residents waited seven hours yesterday for a chance to speak against the Royal Farms project.

A month ago at a community meeting, it was all hand claps and cheers for Northeast residents who have been fighting for years against a Royal Farms store and gas station proposed at a Harford Road intersection near a school and library.

They were surprised when Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake appeared at the meeting and told them, “I heard you.”

A new memo from the Planning Department, handed out to NoRoFo leaders, had recommended denial of the project, saying it would “increase the probability of automobile collision-related injuries or death.”

But earlier this week, on the eve of a key Zoning Board vote, came a new twist to the plot.

There now was a new memo from Planning that pointed to approval, citing a new site plan in which the developer promised to remove parking spaces in the back, add green space and make some other changes.

Citing that new memo, the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals voted 4-1 yesterday to approve the conditional use for the gas station.

“Something happened. Somebody got to Planning. . . That’s politics,” said the residents’ lawyer, John Murphy, in his closing remarks addressed to the board.

“The mayor came out at the community meeting and changed her mind later on. Same with [3rd District Councilman Robert] Curran,” Murphy continued.

Lawyers and expert  witnesses at the Zoning Board on behalf of Royal Farms. (Photo by Fern  Shen)

Lawyers and expert witnesses at the Zoning Board on behalf of Royal Farms. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“What you’re really being asked to do is facilitate a deal,” Murphy told the board.

“You don’t have to accept the deal. . . You’re people of integrity.”

In the end, only board member Michael Barb cast a “no” vote.

“I can’t in good conscience vote for anything that’s got such overwhelming opposition to it,” Barb said, comparing the issue to the Fairfield incinerator and the Morrell Park truck-train transfer station.

Also on the losing side of this encounter was City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who described the current intersection as unsafe in his comments to the board.

Noting Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s change of position, Young said, “I don’t know what happened with any of that. . . but I know I stand with these folks.”

More, not Less, Safe?

The latest iteration of Royal Farms’ proposal for the intersection of Harford Road and Glenmore Avenue was laid out yesterday by the six-member team of lawyers and consultants representing the corporate parent, Two Farms, Inc.

Leading the team were Caroline L. Hecker and Stanley Fine of Rosenberg Martin Greenberg.

Hecker began by describing the company’s offer to pay for realigning Glenmore Avenue, which currently is not continuous on either side of Harford Road and is further complicated by Old Harford Road coming in at a steep angle.

“Royal Farms is prepared to pay for it,” Hecker said, estimating the cost of the realignment at $400,000 to $600,000.

She said the new site plan includes adding a green-space buffer to the east and eliminating a rear parking area and access driveway as well as a curb cut-out on the north side of Mary Avenue.

“By improving the geometry and functionality of the intersection,” Hecker argued, her clients’ convenience store would make the intersection more, rather than less, safe for cars and pedestrians.

The company would be making a $3 million investment and creating 35 new jobs, Hecker said.

Another Two Farms representative, Stephen Warfield, said the proposed Royal Farms would be “more like a cafe than a traditional convenience store.”

“It will be a place for the neighbors to gather,” he said, prompting coughs of derision and guffaws.

Who Benefits from Realignment?

Testifying for the residents, former city transportation planner Gerald Neily said that realigning the intersection “would make it more unsafe” because it would encourage motorists to speed through and turn erratically – and at times illegally – to access the “gas-and-go” business.

Leaving the intersection the way it is now, Neily said, “would be worse for Royal Farms, but better for this intersection,” he said. “The whole point of a Royal Farms is to intercept traffic in the existing stream.”

Neily said re-striping the intersection, adding crosswalks and making other changes would make the spot safer but that it’s not necessary to approve the project to make these changes: “it’s something the city could do right now.”

Murphy questioned Royal Farms’ Warfield, asking him how he could conclude the gas station would not have an adverse effect on traffic and safety: “I mean, you’ve got five streets coming together in one intersection!”

Latest site plan for Hamilton Royal Farms project. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Latest site plan for Hamilton Royal Farms project. (Photo by Fern Shen)

As happened frequently during the hearing, Zoning Chairman Geoffrey W. Washington rose to the developer’s defense, rebuking Murphy for honing in on the intersection rather than the intended use for it.

“I just want to make sure we’re clear and focused on the use, not the location,” Washington said, noting that the applicants need no special zoning permission for a convenience store, just for a gas station.

“They’re one and the same!” Murphy shot back. “That’s why all these people are here!”

Where Children Walk

When the hearing was originally scheduled to begin, about 60 people were in the room, a number that dwindled over the course of about seven hours before they were given a chance to speak.

Lauraville resident Jody Landers said he surveyed other Harford Road gas stations at the I-695 intersection and found that they have fewer pumps than the 12-pump station proposed for Hamilton. The project, he asserted, is “out of scale.”

“This is inherently unsafe. I can’t believe that the Planning Department and DOT would even entertain this,” he said.

By the end, witnesses were only give a minute each to speak.

“Within the first eight homes of Glenmore Avenue, there are over 20 children,” said Dell Hagan Rhodes, noting students use the street to go to and from Hamilton Middle and Elementary school and the library.

Two residents who testified against the project, Linda Brown and George Van Hook. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Two residents who testified against the project, Linda Brown and George Van Hook. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The gas station and store “is an accident waiting to happen,” said George Van Hook, predicting that “it will ruin the culture of an emerging neighborhood.”

Phillip Heller called the station “a monstrosity,” and said he didn’t want 500,000 gallons of gas in tanks near his home.

Del. Cheryl D. Glenn (D., 45th), who lives about 10 minutes from Harford Road, said she wanted to add her “passionate opposition.”  She termed it “unbelievable” that the city could favor such a project in spite of the opposition of 10 community groups, with no group supporting it.

“That intersection is absolutely insane. . . What am I paying taxes for? Nobody’s listening to me!” Mariya Shchesyuk said. “Also, I am flabbergasted by how the board seems to be biased and taking the side of Royal Farms.”

Murphy v. Washington

Murphy pointed out that not all of the developer’s proposed changes were benign. He cited, for example, a variance requesting to put parking spaces closer to Harford Road, which would violate set-back requirements.

“They have not offered one scintilla of evidence to justify this,” he said.

Murphy also pressed the Planning Department’s Peter French about how the city could conclude that the company’s changes represented “a significant improvement.”

(The Planning memo, Murphy noted, never actually recommended approval, but outlined some additional conditions “should the Board grant approval of this appeal.” Among them: limiting the number of fuel pumps to eight, minimizing lighting impacts and planting trees in a green-space buffer.)

Zoning Board members (l-r) Jai Bonner, Frank C. Bonaventure, Jr, and Chairman Geoffrey Washington. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Zoning Board members (l-r) Jai Bonner, Frank C. Bonaventure, Jr, and Chairman Geoffrey Washington. (Photo by Fern Shen)

“What has changed since the September memo?” Murphy asked French, noting that essentially the same Glenmore Avenue realignment was being proposed now as it was then, when the city opposed it.

French repeated the new parts of the site plan, including the elimination of the Mary Avenue cut-through and the green space buffer.

At moments, though, the residents’ attorney seemed to be arguing primarily with Chairman Washington.

“The most important element here is common sense,” Murphy said. “Gas pumps will attract congestion coming in and out!”

“I’m asking for evidence!” Washington asked.

“I’m asking you to use your own head!” Murphy said. “And for evidence, I would point to the Planning Department’s own [September] memo.”

Protecting Property Owner Rights

When it came time to vote, Washington said he rejected the idea that future motorists’ illegal behavior is enough reason to reject the proposal.

“It’s absurd to prevent someone from the constitutional use of their property based on someone else’s illegal acts,” he said.

“I’m torn,” board member Jai Bonner said, noting that the presence of the gas station could have “psychological effects” on residents.

Board member Martin B. King was swayed by the company’s offer to pay for the alignment work.

“It’s a dangerous intersection and here we have a company willing to address this dangerous intersection,” said King. “I don’t have any faith in the city.”

Curran Under Fire

After their vote, several residents came over to Councilman Curran and chastised him for his comments during the meeting.

Councilman Robert Curran, who spoke in favor of a Royal Farms convenience store project in his district that 10 community association oppose and none support. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Councilman Robert Curran spoke in favor of the revised Royal Farms plan yesterday. To his left is attorney John Murphy. (Photo by Fern Shen)

During yesterday’s hearing, Curran testified in support of the project and said his position was consistent with a 13-11 vote of the Glenham-Belhar Association in 2012 that was pro-Royal Farms.

(At a subsequent meeting of the Glenham-Belhar Association under new leadership, the same group had voted 56-0 against Royal Farms. Curran, who had attended that meeting, said as their Council representative he would respect the community’s wishes and oppose the project.)

Engaging in some score-settling yesterday, Curran called residents who have said he was in the pocket of Royal Farms “bald-faced liars.”

“I don’t appreciate you telling me and my neighbors that we are liars,” Rebecca Vaurio said as she confronted Curran after the meeting.

“You are a snake,” another woman said to him, turning on her heel.

“That’s okay,” Curran said as she walked away. “It goes with the territory.”

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