Opponents in the drawn-out struggle over a proposed Royal Farms gas station in Northeast Baltimore are preparing to do battle again.
Over beers and fries at a recent Hamilton Tavern strategy session, residents spoke out against the project, raising pretty much the same arguments they did when it surfaced eight years ago.
They say a 24-hour, 12-gas-pump convenience store – at the busy intersection of Harford Road and Glenmore Avenue, near a school and a library – is wrong for a community that wants to be walk-able and family-friendly.
“It’s gonna make it impossible for kids to cross the street,” Angela Jancius, president of the Westfield Neighborhood Improvement Association, told The Brew.
Caren Shelley, an art teacher at Friends School, read letters from residents who weren’t able to attend.
One writer concluded that the city zoning board’s past actions on the issue show it “doesn’t care about our neighborhood.”
Jeff Bainbridge, Royal Farms’ director of real estate, has not responded to two calls and an email seeking comment.
Appeals Court Favors Foes
Royal Farms has sought to build the combination store and gas station for nearly the past decade, and residents have repeatedly challenged rulings in its favor by the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals and the courts.
Zoning rules for the site allow the company to build a convenience store “by right,” but they do not allow gas pumps and require the city to grant a “conditional use” for them to be installed.
In 2017, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals remanded the case back to the zoning board. It said the board and a Circuit Court judge erred in granting the conditional use.
No Oral Testimony
Rather than hold a new hearing, the zoning board plans to hold a “re-deliberation” next Tuesday (January 28).
The board is accepting written testimony ahead of the meeting, but is not holding a hearing open to public comment. Community leaders said they are frustrated that residents can’t provide oral testimony in person.
“I think they’re making a legal mistake in not holding a hearing,” said John Murphy, a lawyer representing neighborhood associations opposed to Royal Farms.
Murphy said the re-deliberation hearing is an error because it amounts to only going back to “step two.”
The zoning board’s executive director, Derek J. Baumgardner, said the process isn’t restarting from the beginning because the appeals court did not reverse the board’s findings.
“Rather, they remanded it because in the court’s opinion we misapplied one aspect of conditional use law to the facts and evidence in the record,” Baumgardner wrote in an email to The Brew.
“The court could have reversed the board entirely, finding that our decision was incorrect and/or our findings were insufficient, and deny the relief requested by the applicant in this case,” he continued. “But they did not do that, they remanded with instructions.”
In such situations, he said, the court does not require “an entirely new hearing with new evidence, new witnesses, new or old facts, etc.”
Murphy sent a letter this week to Baumgardner requesting a full public hearing. “There have been a number of changes in the vicinity of this property, most notably the reconfiguration of the intersection,” he wrote.
Gas Pumps Near a “Road Diet”
The empty lot where Royal Farms wants to build is at the north end of a Harford Road traffic calming area, the so-called “road diet” championed by 3rd District Councilman Ryan Dorsey.
That initiative added bike lanes and “floating” bus stops and reduced the road to one lane between Glenmore and Echodale avenues.
Dorsey and many district residents are fighting to slow down traffic on Harford Road, a major artery that carries traffic downtown from Baltimore County, in order to make the neighborhood safer and more pedestrian-friendly. They say a Royal Farms store promotes car use and benefits drivers from the county while hurting the neighborhood.
Over the course of the controversy, some residents have supported the proposal, saying a new convenience store would be better than a derelict building or empty lot.
But they were outnumbered by opponents, including all of the area community associations that have voted to stand against it. RoFo foes packed hearings and stood on Harford Road with signs, crowdsourcing to come up with money for a lawyer.
Dorsey cut his teeth in local politics opposing the project. Longtime Councilman Robert Curran, who preceded Dorsey, supported the construction. Residents were impressed with Dorsey’s advocacy.
The lot at 5901 Harford Road was the headquarters, now demolished, of Local 37 of the International Union of Operating Engineers. Today the property is held by “Harford 5901 LLC” affiliated with the local demolition contractor, Berg Corporation.
Company CEO David Berg donated $3,000 to Dorsey last February, Maryland campaign finance data show. This was the first time Berg or Berg’s company have contributed to Dorsey.
The case now depends on whether the zoning board will – once again – grant Royal Farms a conditional use zoning exception to build the pumps. Opponents’ leverage lies in their ability to convince the board that the location is not suitable for a gas station.
Andy Ellis, co-chair of the Maryland Green Party, made the environmental case.
“It is inevitable that we need to give up fossil fuels in the next 10 years,” said Ellis, who lives in Waltherson. “If we put a rest-stop-sized gas station in the middle of a commercial district, it will remain a highway.”
Dorsey said that while he agrees with Ellis, that’s not the type of argument the zoning board would buy.
Dorsey said the best argument is that the gas station would undercut the infrastructure investments the city has made in making this stretch of Harford Road more walkable and transit-friendly.
Reducing Traffic Danger
Dorsey told those in attendance to email BMZA executive director Derek Baumgardner before the close of business today in order to give the board time to review constituent input before Tuesday’s re-deliberation.
Murphy believes the strongest argument against the plan lies in its poor location – the corner of a five-point intersection.
Opponents believe a mega-gas station would disrupt traffic patterns and encourage reckless driving across lanes to get to the station.
A Planning Department memo noted that putting a convenience store at that location would “increase the probability of automobile collision-related injuries or death.”