August 19, 2017
Community
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  • If built, 31 three-story brick townhomes in Cattail Commons would have been constructed along an environmentally sensitive area near the Robinson Retreat community and Robinson Crossing shopping center.
    Zach Sparks
    If built, 31 three-story brick townhomes in Cattail Commons would have been constructed along an environmentally sensitive area near the Robinson Retreat community and Robinson Crossing shopping center.
  • If built, 31 three-story brick townhomes in Cattail Commons would have been constructed along an environmentally sensitive area near the Robinson Retreat community and Robinson Crossing shopping center.
    Zach Sparks
    If built, 31 three-story brick townhomes in Cattail Commons would have been constructed along an environmentally sensitive area near the Robinson Retreat community and Robinson Crossing shopping center.

Koch Homes Nixes Cattail Commons Townhouse Project

Zach Sparks
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August 10, 2017

Community Activists Strike Rare Compromise With Developer

Good things often come in small packages, but it’s what didn’t come that thrilled Severna Park residents in July. After negotiations with the Magothy River Association (MRA), Greater Severna Park Council (GSPC) and Robinson Retreat community, Koch Homes found an alternative to building the 31-townhome Cattail Commons neighborhood that was first proposed in February 2014.

“I’ve lived here my whole life and I realized people were concerned about it,” said Kevin Lusby, vice president and director of land development for Koch Homes. “I wanted to find a solution that made everyone less unhappy. It doesn’t come out as a total washout, but it lets us recoup some of the land value and it pleases the neighbors.”

The Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad Company owns the land, which is situated by the Robinson Crossing shopping center that contains Food Lion and Dollar Tree. The compromise calls for the railroad company to place 9.4 acres into conservation easement to be preserved as open space while the remaining 2 acres are left for potential commercial development.

“We put up a very good fight, and the Magothy River Association has a long history of staying in these fights for a long time,” said the group’s president, Paul Spadaro. “We held the march for the yellow perch, talked about the importance of the wetlands and the beaver habitat. For three years, we’ve been writing letters to the county, urging them to stop overdevelopment. Those letters and those inquiries did not fall on deaf ears.”

In addition to letters, the MRA, GSPC and a group called the Cattail Caucus – led by Cindi Mitchell and Adrienne Croll – held discussions with Koch. About a year ago, it became apparent that neither side favored a prolonged legal battle, and other possibilities were floated.

“During the course of all this, we did look at some single-family home options,” Lusby said. “On Ritchie Highway, with the noise and the confusion, it was not an A-plus site so to speak. This [compromise] seemed to be the best commonsense use of the land.”

As GSPC President Maureen Carr-York said, “The townhomes were a much higher density, packed in, with a lot more impact on schools and traffic than we were hoping for. Single-family homes were more in keeping in line with Severna Park and would have been less intrusive to Robinson Retreat than them having to look at three-story townhomes, but it didn’t fix any of the environmental problems.”

Koch’s offer was a big win for environmentalists as 31 townhomes would have added more impervious surface and removed natural buffers that keep stormwater from draining into Cattail Creek, an imperiled Magothy River tributary.

Lisa Brown, who has lived in the Robinson Retreat community for nearly 20 years, called the compromise “a very happy ending to a very scary time.”

“Four houses from our community are in the cul-de-sac that directly backs up to the property, and I’m in one of those four houses,” said Brown, who said she feels incredibly lucky to live near the woodlands. “To say there were sleepless nights would be an understatement.”

She also applauded Koch Homes. “I appreciated that the dialogue was continuing,” Brown said. “Since 2014, the dialogue never stopped.”

Working on behalf of the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, Manhattan Beach resident and attorney Russ Stevenson was hoping to return the peace when he joined the case about six months before the agreement. Most importantly, he said, the easement will keep those 9 acres preserved for the long term. “This is a permanent victory,” Stevenson noted. “This ends the discussion on that piece of property.”

With the deal, the Magothy River Association agreed to drop an appeal of upzoning on Wishing Rock Road in Pasadena, which would take the designation from R1 to R15 and allow Koch to build 184 housing units. “He wanted Wishing Rock more than he wanted Cattail Commons,” Spadaro said of Lusby, who just said “they are two totally unrelated properties that just happen to have the same developer, so the timing was right.”

Spadaro said that although MRA has dropped the Wishing Rock appeal, he still intends to lobby for preservation of the natural resources surrounding Wishing Rock Road and request that the Lake Waterford region become a Habitat Protection Area, which would then have extra safeguarding under a 1988 state and county Critical Area Act mandate. Enforcing that law is another issue.

“Charles County has mapped their anadromous fish population and other counties have complied with the law, but they have not complied with the law in the way I want it to be applied,” Spadaro said. “… They are supposed to maintain the forest cover and, if possible, improve the forest land cover. The law says that the county shall improve the water quality. When you see ‘shall’ in legal terms, that means it’s mandatory.”

As for the prospect of new stores on the 2 remaining acres beside Robinson Crossing, Spadaro said, “It’s commercial development that we would review anyway. Those are all issues that we would still have some say in, and that project might never even happen.”

MRA member Karen Royer is excited about the outcome, but she believes not all issues were resolved. She specifically noted modifications – for, among other things, specimen trees and stream buffers – that the Office of Planning and Zoning granted during the planning phase of Cattail Commons.

“Any developer who buys land in the protected area needs to follow the development laws for the protected area, not apply for variances (now called modifications),” Royer added. “The rule of law should apply to all, and we are fortunate to have organizations like the Magothy River Association and the Cattail Caucus to advocate for the citizens who want to see the creeks and rivers protected.”

Others don’t see the compromise as setting a precedent. “Every proposed development is different and has to be taken on its own merits and impact on the environment and surrounding communities,” Stevenson said. “We recognize the rights of property owners. As environmentalists, we’re anxious to make sure developers don’t bend the law and get exceptions, because those laws are there to protect the environment.”

Those future land-use battles are to be left for another day. For now, everyone is happy.

“I’m glad we didn’t have to go forward with unnecessary lawsuits or anything like that,” Lusby said. “The key to a good negotiation is that everyone walks away a little less unhappy.”

Brown doesn’t feel that she walked away “a little less unhappy.” She feels that the deal greatly benefitted Robinson Retreat and everyone in Severna Park.

“You could have knocked me over with a feather that this was even a possibility,” Brown said.


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