The year that the battle commenced against a 12-pump, around-the-clock Royal Farms gas station and convenience store on Harford Road, Barack Obama was in the White House, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was at City Hall and Gangnam Style was a thing.
Back in 2012, residents raised their fists at the site, at the Glenmore Avenue intersection, saying the project would worsen traffic woes and conflict with the pedestrian-friendly, family-friendly vibe of their diverse northeast Baltimore neighborhood.
Fast-forward to today, and the site stands vacant, while the lawsuit that several area community associations eventually filed is still alive.
Why have they hung on so long?
“It’s a neighborhood! It’s right across from the library and two blocks from the school,” exclaimed Jody Landers, a former City Councilman who lives nearby in Lauraville.
Landers said he and a fellow resident who support the lawsuit recently spent a school day afternoon at the spot “and we counted 60-70 kids walking through there and crossing the street.”
The case was back before the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals (BMZA) on Tuesday for a procedural issue and is poised to come up once again.
Lawyers for the convenience store chain had argued that the panel should take no new testimony and only consider material presented in 2015, the last time the case was heard.
The residents’ attorney, John C. Murphy, said a full hearing was needed because Harford Road had changed significantly since then, with many new Complete Streets traffic-calming measures added.
The zoning board voted in favor of the residents.
A full hearing on 5901-21 Harford Road is now scheduled to take place on December 5 on the 8th floor of the Benton Building at 417 East Fayette Street.
“I was a young man when this case began,” Murphy cracked, addressing the board on Tuesday.
Looking at an opponents’ group photo from 2012, which shows many adults accompanied by children and toddlers, Angela Jancius also notes the passage of time.
“Some of those kids are in college now,” observed Jancius, president of Westfield Neighborhood Improvement Association.
“A lot of those people have moved away because they didn’t like what they thought was coming,” she said, adding that new residents have joined the opposition.
”We had a NoRoFoHamilton meeting in August, and 75 people showed up,” she said.
Fits and Starts
For more than a decade, Royal Farms’ corporate parent, Two Farms Inc., has sought to build a combination store and gas station at the location, where multiple roads come together.
The convenience store chain runs more than 240 outlets in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia and North Carolina. Its ads showing Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker hawking RoFo chicken help the company keep a high profile in the region.
Royal Farms has needed permission from the city because the parcel had a zoning designation that permitted a convenience store, but required a “conditional use” for the construction of gas pumps.
Currently, the site is empty and fenced in. A building housing the headquarters of Local 37 of the International Union of Operating Engineers was demolished.
The property is held by “Harford 5901 LLC,” which is affiliated with the local demolition contractor, Berg Corporation.
The groups supporting the legal challenge against the project include the Westfield Neighborhood Improvement Association, the Hamilton Community Association, the Lauraville Community Association and the North Harford Road Community Association. Organizers expect more to be joining soon.
In fits and starts, the dispute has winded its way through various governmental and judicial processes:
• In 2013, the BMZA approved Royal Farms’ conditional use request, despite opposition from 10 area community associations and a petition signed by nearly 500 people.
• Later that year, the community appealed the decision in Circuit Court, citing among other issues the “corrections” made to the decision after a phone call from Royal Farms’ attorneys to the BMZA. Circuit Court Judge Charles Peters remanded the case back to the BMZA.
• In 2018, in a win for residents, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals sent the matter back again to the zoning board, saying the panel had misread the law when it granted the conditional use in 2015.
• In 2019, after the BMZA decided to hold a “re-deliberation” rather than a new zoning hearing, the two sides began sparring again.
Royal Farms argued that the Appeals Court ruling only pertained to a legal, not substantive, issue.
Opponents dusted off their arguments, preparing to go at it again before the process stalled amid the Covid pandemic.
Now thanks to its latest vote, the zoning board will hold a full hearing on the RoFo proposal with an entirely new cast of board members.