ELKTON — After several packed and raucous Southfields meetings, it was a tamer scene at the town public hearing Wednesday night when a small crowd of residents came out against proposed Planned Use Development (PUD) language.
Eight people spoke out against the development, with reasons ranging from allowing a warehouse near a now-quiet residential area to truck traffic, home ownership, financial burden and the fact that Southfields developers had a say in crafting the language.
Stonewall Capital principal owner Ray Jackson has unveiled his vision Southfields to include a logistics/industrial park, apartments and houses, a park and retail sites. The town planning staff and attorneys started crafting new PUD language after Jackson eyed the land back in July.
‘The cat designing the canary cage’
At the end of a four hour meeting Monday, the Planning Commission recommended striking heavy industrial use from PUDs as well striking language that would allow the storage of goods inside the structure via warehousing.
But Planning Commission member Keith Thompson, who — in a rare move — testified on the proposal, made it clear that the storage use provision made it back in without the commission’s approval. Town staff said the language made it back between the commission’s meeting and Wednesday night after Southfields engineering firm Morris & Ritchie requested it.
Elkton’s legal staff recommends that it would allow for only large PUDs and only with special exemption from the town’s Board of Appeals. Large PUDs are more than 100 acres of contiguous property, so Southfields would qualify under this provision if passed.
Chris Petrizzo and John Conolly, both citizens who have spoken frequently against the Southfields project in the past, pushed back against Morris & Ritchie having a seat at the table.
“In this, it smells unethical,” Petrizzo said. “You have an applicant whose main job is to profit off of this, he’s not caring about Elkton or anyone, he’s caring about what will make him a profit. He’s rewording this for himself, and to have his developers help with the wording of this. It’s the cat designing the canary cage.”
Petrizzo also argued against warehousing in general, claiming that they were “not pretty, noisy and not conducive to residential areas” or improving Elkton.
‘Fox in the hen house’
Conolly said that no matter how well-intentioned it was, any party that had a monetary stake in PUDs should not have a hand in shaping the zoning.
“I don’t think it’s without bias,” he said. “She uses the cat and the canary, I like the term fox in the hen house. I don’t think it’s appropriate.”
Conolly also pushed for a definition of light manufacturing. The proposal does not define it nor is it included in the existing zoning ordinance. Elkton Planning Director Jeanne Minner said that staff was working on it and “we know what it is not.”
‘Why are we in such a rush?’
David Beste, an attorney that represents the town in this matter, clarified that Elkton did not take Morris & Ritchie’s proposals and copy and paste it into the town’s proposal.
In the past weeks, Downs, Blackson and Beste had researched PUDs across the nation and considered what worked for Elkton, what did not and previous proposals that were shelved during the 2013 comprehensive rezoning.
“You won’t find an ordinance like this anywhere because it’s different from others out there,” Beste said. “The developer did not write this ordinance, no one did except for the Town of Elkton. There were comments submitted like any other.”
Still, others like Peter Klein, were skeptical. He used public comment to ask town elected officials and staff sign a statement that they nor their families have anything to gain by passing the PUD language.
“A friend that works for NASA told me that with enough thrust, anything can fly. So where is this thrust coming from? [The developer’s] motives are transparent, he wants to build a project he can retire on. Why are we in such a rush?” Klein asked.
These concerns were echoed by many to the Cecil Whig later, like Frenchtown Road resident Trish Wells. While she still had concerned about truck traffic, runoff into her well, and property values, she told the Whig later that she thought it was a conflict of interest for Morris & Ritchie to help revise the language.
Bill Horne, who lives in Walnut Hill, warned Elkton about taking on such a large project without guarantees that the residences would be bought. His neighborhood is still being built out and many on his street are rented out.
“I’ve seen in other small towns there were rules where in a development once you bought that house you had to live in it for 10 years … I’m afraid that if you don’t put in some kind of rules that will happen to your new development,” Horne said.
Joe Long, who works as a truck driver for General Electric distribution center in Perryville, warned against the Southfields apartment complex with the rental situation “out of control.”
Both he and Horne implored for there to be more considerations for amusements. Horne asked to swap out industrial for a bowling alley or a movie theater to keep teenagers busy, while Long pushed for tourists attractions like what was the Historic Little Wedding Chapel.
Thomas McFadden thought laying out PUD restrictions was a sign of progress, and if any area was situated for high density growth it would be Elkton. However, he did have suggestions for the design — like expanding apartments more than the proposed 50 feet and requiring facades on all sides and not just facing public roads.
“The property owners who live behind the buildings behind structures may be more open to some of this development, if it doesn’t look ugly from their front yards from their backyards as well,” he said.
Jennifer Jonach expressed concerns about how fast the PUD process had progressed, since the public still has not seen amended language on the proposal. She warned that PUD would have considerable impacts for Bohemia Manor High and Middle School, the small roads and the Chesapeake City Bridge.
With the considerable incentives on the table with the enterprise zone expansion, hook-up fee waivers and front foot assessments, she also feared that the longtime taxpayers would be forced to foot the expense of Southfields.
“This is a legacy project that is being considered to charge the zoning ordinance through the PUD is something that will last for a very, very long time,” Jonach said. “We’ve got to give adequate consideration because there’s very real implications.”
The last speaker was Linda Brammer, and she said that she was disappointed to see that Mayor Rob Alt’s original dream of a regional sports has faded into what Southfields is expected to be.
“It was a big disappointment. I really love the idea of the world class sports facility and athletic fields, and isn’t that we want for our town to make a positive thing for our communities,” she said. “I love Elkton and Cecil County and I really want to see us improve.”
Mayor Rob Alt explained that he spent a lot of time and energy to make it happen, meeting with an unlimited amount of people in the last five years. But he stressed it was disappointing it was not realized but could negotiate a piece of it with Southfields.
Stonewall Capital has conceptualized 50-acre sports complex, with baseball fields and lacrosse fields to fit this dream. Alt stressed to the crowd that they are heard, no matter whether they are town residents or not, and take their comments seriously.
“There’s going to be some changes, good and bad, we’ll see in the next couple weeks,” he said. “Everyone’s voice is important, these PUDs have to be right for the region and not just the town of Elkton.”
‘A better place to live’
In another seldom-seen moment, Commissioner Earl Piner passionately defended the board and Elkton, where he’s lived for 62 years. He also pushed back against the perception that Elkton is an unsafe place to live, but the town laments missed opportunities.
“I know change is going to come when I’m dead or gone, something’s going to happen. People say, we don’t want to do anything, we don’t want to go because we won’t accept nothing,” he said. “How long is it going to take for us to have something when it comes to us?”
Piner pushed back on the criticisms on social media that this project was being pushed through illegal methods, noting that the town has several staff and processes to make it work.
“Like the mayor says, good, bad or indifferent, we have to take your buy in to make the concept work and if it doesn’t work, we squash it,” he said.
“These aren’t things we dreamed up, these are the things that came our way. I’m in support of whatever makes Elkton grow and become a better place to live.”
The Elkton commissioners will publish the revised PUD language on its website elkton.org in the near future.
The Mayor and Commissioners are expected to vote on the PUD language proposal at its next meeting, Oct. 2.