November 18,  2009

Planning Board is split on the
proposal for Pilot School site

In a narrowly split decision the county Planning Board agreed to join with the Department of Land Use in recommending that County Council rezone the 15-acre Pilot School property on Garden of Eden Road to permit construction of an age-restricted community of mixed housing types.  

While there seemed to be general agreement that in-fill residential development at the site after the school relocates is a good idea, board chairman Victor Singer sided with residents of adjacent Tavistock and nearby Edenridge who opposed the project on the grounds that its proposed density -- 149 dwelling units, an average of just shy of 10 per acre -- would be out of keeping with the 'character' of the neighborhood.

Board member Sandra Anderson agreed with the opponents that achieving that concentration by taking advantage of a provision in the Unified Development Code which provides a density bonus as an incentive for redeveloping abandoned or blighted sites was not a proper application of the law.

Mark Weinberg, on the other hand, argued that the proposed community -- to be known as Columbia Place -- is exactly what the most recent iteration of the county's Comprehensive Development Plan envisions. "If we don't do this type of development in this area where can we do it?" he asked rhetorically.

The land use department in its recommendation was unequivocally supportive of the rezoning. It is consistent with the zoning pattern in the vicinity and meets the criteria for making use of the redevelopment ordinance, its position paper, read at the planning board's business meeting on Nov. 17 but not made available to the public, said.

After about an hour of discussion, the board voted four-to-three to concur with the department's recommendation. William McGlinchey joined Singer and Anderson in voting against doing so, but did not offer a specific objection.

Victor Udo, in effect, provided for concurrence by abstaining from voting. He said he felt there was ample middle ground between the density the developer, Reybold Group, is seeking and the 60 dwelling units that community residents suggested at the recent public hearing on the issue to achieve a solution "everybody will be happy with." Had Udo voted against concurrence, the result would have been a tie and the matter would go before Council without a Planning Board recommendation. One of the nine positions on the board is vacant.

Land use general manager David Culver said after the meeting that rezoning from the present residential classification to the residential transitional classification, if approved by Council, would be conditioned on compliance with the plan Reybold has put forward. Any substantive change in the plan, Culver explained, would require going through the rezoning process again. Council is next scheduled to vote on rezoning ordinances in February. If rezoning is granted, the Columbia Place plan will have to go through the major plan-approval process. If it is found to comply with the technical requirements of the development code, approval is essentially automatic.

If the Columbia Place plan is approved, it will be the first residential application of the redevelopment ordinance. The ordinance refers to rehabilitating industrial and commercial sites and apartment complexes.

Columbia Place would include two four-story condominium buildings with a total of 82 dwelling units, 50 townhouses and 17 single-family dwellings. All would be age-restricted; that is, requiring that one of the residents be age 55 or older and none be younger than 18.

Anderson pointed out that there is a density bonus provided in code provisions referring to age-restricted development. Culver during the discussion indicated that, had it desired, Reybold Group could also have sought that bonus.

The department's position paper noted that the plan calls for the condominium buildings to be situated at the side of the property nearest Concord Pike. The townhouses would be west of that and the single-family units located where they would abut Tavistock. About 40% of the property would be left as open space.

Culver said that the per-acre density in the portion of Columbia Place that would be designated for single-family units would be less than the present per-acre density in neighboring Tavistock.

Singer questioned why the overall allowable density of the project has been calculated by applying the entire 25% redevelopment bonus to the basic allowable density for apartments rather than applying it to each of the housing types. He said his calculation using the latter method came out to 124 dwelling units. Culver replied that the entire plan is considered to be condominium development and that allows use of the apartment standard.

"The code itself sets out the density numbers," Culver said. "The debate on [allowable] density occurred 12 years ago" when the Unified Development Code was enacted.

The department position paper noted that the area around Concord Pike and Silverside Road is heavily commercial with several institutional uses, such as the Jewish Community Center and the Y.M.C.A. providing a transition to residential use. The Columbia Place plan mirrors that and is "compatible with existing mixed uses in the Concord Pike area." Garden of Eden Road extends west from the Concord Pike-Silverside Road intersection.

Moreover, the paper added, it "complies with the goals" of the 2007 updates to the comprehensive plan and would be a "viable [application of] 'smart-code' development."

That appears to create a contradiction for Councilman Robert Weiner who, as representative for the area, would under usual practice sponsor the rezoning ordinance. He has been a long-time persistent advocate of so-called 'smart growth', but testified at the public hearing in opposition to the Columbia Place proposal. Weiner is presently out of the county and could not be reached for comment.

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Read previous Delaforum article: Area residents object to plan for Pilot School site.

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