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Community Confused By Ruling On Cluster Development

Zach Sparks
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April 4, 2017

Five or six months – that’s how long stakeholders spent hammering out the details of a proposed change to the county’s cluster development laws, according to Ann Fligsten, executive director of Growth Action Network (GAN), a coalition that advocates sustainable, environmentally friendly development.

“I thought it was a 40 percent chance it would pass,” Fligsten said, referring to legislation that was introduced to the county council on January 17 and defeated by a 5-2 vote on March 20. “I think there was some feeling that the amendments would weaken the bill or that it would be too erroneous for developers.”

Cluster development is the practice of grouping properties in a way that is meant to preserve the extra land as open space, protecting the neighborhood’s rural quality. Critics of the practice in Severna Park say that although it is legal, it has been used to increase the density of the population on a given parcel, creating concerns about stormwater runoff and a lack of forest buffer.

With input from the Anne Arundel County Department of Planning and Zoning and the Office of Law, GAN and the Maryland chapter of the Maryland Builders Industry Association were the two parties driving the conversation of compromise, which culminated in the proposal forwarded to the county council.

The amended legislation would have renamed cluster development as “preservation-oriented development,” reorganized the county code for clarity, required that 30 percent of the land on such a development be designated for open space and set the minimum lot size for those projects at 5 acres.

The council scrapped the legislation, but not before it was the subject of intense debate. “It feels good, it sounds good, but what I was looking for was, what is the example that caused this to come to fruition — that said cluster is not working for the environment?” said Councilman Pete Smith of District 1. “That data is what I am looking for.”

Smith was joined by Councilman John Grasso in voting “nay” because of unintended consequences. After the council defeated the bill, that sentiment was downplayed by Pat Lynch, vice president of Broadneck Council of Communities and GAN.

“The fear of ‘unintended consequences’ exists in every legislation, but that excuse is also being used as a cover by uninformed councilmen,” said Lynch, who questioned why some councilmen waited until the last meeting to ask “basic questions to clarify parts of the legislation being discussed for many sessions.”

Councilman Chris Trumbauer, who provided one of two “yes” votes along with the one cast by District 5 Councilman Michael Peroutka, argued the bill’s merits.

“The best I can tell, the consensus is this is a step moving forward for environmental protections,” said Trumbauer, who represents Annapolis in District 6. “It’s not perfect. It was a compromise. It seeks to address some of those questions or concerns that exist on the current application of the clustering provision.”

The meeting was well attended by Severna Park residents and developers. Severna Park resident Chad Hartman, a mortgage broker for Old Line Bank in Annapolis, outlined the bill’s potential impact on local builders, developers, title companies and real estate agents.

“It creates an uneven playing field when they compete with national builders that may not have the same restriction because they’re building on parcels greater than 5 acres,” Hartman said. “And if you eliminate the competition that the local builders provide, it’s going to allow the national builders to charge more for their product and more for their services, the product being the new home, the services being title services, mortgage services.”

Citing 30 years of experience as a licensed real estate agent, Annapolis resident Wendy Oliver, who sells new construction for Ameri-Star Homes, argued that the legislation would threaten jobs and infringe on property rights.

“I have sold hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate in this county, which has contributed to impact fees, taxes, jobs, etc.,” she said. “… We have taken horrible parcels, abandoned barns, lean-tos, sheds with people doing drugs on the properties – we’ve cleaned them up. We have made county properties beautiful. We have improved the values of our properties throughout the county. I am letting you know that I am one voice of almost 4,000 real estate agents in this county, and if you pass this bill, we are going to do a call to action.”

Greater Severna Park Council President Maureen Carr-York took exception to those comments. “Severna Park has seen a lot of trouble from cluster development,” Carr-York said. “Nobody is taking anybody’s development rights away. All of this scare talk about, ‘Oh, people will be out of work, people will have land they can’t sell’ — that’s nonsense. Plain, old, basic development will be allowed to proceed, no matter how small the parcel, just as it can now.

“As imperfect as [the legislation] is and as unhappy with it in its present form as most of us are, it’s better than the current situation,” she added.

A few days after the meeting, Fligsten expressed hope for a future bill. “I think [the councilmen] realize there’s a problem, and maybe the process was confusing. This [legislation] was a lot more complicated than I ever thought it would be.”

Lynch said that regardless of how confusing or complex the bill was, the council had plenty of time to discuss its implications.

“We are truly disgusted that five of our seven county councilmen have bent to the wishes of developers … not to save trees and environmental life, but to consolidate and densely locate houses jammed together at one end of a parcel of land,” she said. “This enables them to locate stormwater facilities at the same end of the cluster. In poorly built developments, such as seen in the Severna Park area, this has led to stormwater runoff into adjacent communities, with either no or limited liability on the developers.”

Grasso was one of the councilmen who expressed the need for stricter development laws.

“I don’t want to live in Baltimore City. If I wanted to go there, that’s where I would have went,” said Grasso, who represents Glen Burnie in District 2. “But I cherish every bit of land that we got, and the same token, I have a responsibility to people’s businesses. But at the same token, they’re making their money and we’re going to have to deal with the aftermath.

“So I think something we need to do is visit on taking away these modifications because it sounds like we’re taking a piece of property that should really only have so many houses and we’re doing every possible thing just to shove houses on top of that property,” he continued. “Basically, for the lack of a better word, we are ‘whoring’ the land.”

Two weeks after that statement, Grasso reflected on legislation he was planning to introduce.

“I want to increase the buffer between the property line and the next subdivision,” Grasso said. “The issue, as I understand it, is that people are packed so close that they can go on their deck and virtually shake hands with the person on the deck next door.”

Expanding on that concept, Grasso also plans to draft legislation prohibiting upzoning, a form of changing an area’s zoning to allow greater density.

“Everyone has a right to develop their land,” he said. “When you go and whore the land, that’s where I have an issue. Their quality of life comes before any development.”

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