ELKTON — Following hours of scrutiny of yet another revision of the Southfields plans, the Elkton Planning Commission issued favorable recommendations for a floating planned use development zone and, with some trepidation, for a special exemption for warehouse use. The Monday night meeting was again packed with officials and interested parties, and lasted four hours.

Warehouse use exemption

The commission voted 4-2 to recommend the warehouse use exemption to the Board of Appeals, on the condition that the developers conduct a health impact study. That condition helped many on the board, as they cited caution as one of the three buildings planned were feet away from some residents off Maloney Road.

“I wouldn’t want it in my backyard. If I could say this — hell no,” said Planning Commission member Art Blout.

“I don’t think the study would make that much of a difference because you have all these other variables with water run-off and vehicles, you still have the noise.”

Blount and Planning Commission Chairman David Wiseman dissented against the special exception.

But all six members unanimously agreed on a favorable recommendation for the PUD overlay zone.

Stonewall Capital principal Ray Jackson is proposing 3.2 million square feet in floor space between the three industrial buildings, with no tenant signed to use the space yet. It’s one component of the Southfields Planned Use Development (PUD), with a mix of commercial, recreational and retail space.

Changes to the concept plan

Between Friday and Monday public hearing, Jackson and his engineers Morris & Ritchie decided to withdraw the concept plan for approval, and revised several components to the PUD floating zone application. Planning Director Jeanne Minner later told the Whig that as some of the forest delineation some aspects of the land was outdated and needed a fresh review.

Furthermore, the Southfields concept has now shrunk from the 620 acres to 577 acres, without the marina close to Elk River, condominiums and a parcel of single family detached homes. Those aspects are in the Chesapeake Bay buffer zone, and would need approval from the Critical Area Commission. That could come as early as March, Minner said.

Instead, Jackson and his team forged on with a smaller version of Southfields But Morris & Ritchie Principal Engineer Sean Davis hinted that the team may request a small PUD for those three aspects.

Other alterations to Southfields at this point include 833 units, although Morris & Ritchie are seeking some flexibility due to the town’s lot size requirements versus what their residential builder is looking at right now. Permitted density is capped at 1,511 units under the town’s ordinance.

Checking acreage calculations

Speaking to the requirements for the PUD overlay zone, Davis argued that the project had checked every box, specifically when it came to the open space requirement. Under the PUD ordinance, Southfields is required to have 25% of its gross land preserved as open space, and within that amount, 30% or .02 acres per residential lot, can be used as active space.

Under Morris & Ritchie calculations, Southfields falls into that requirement with 255 acres of open space, well exceeding the 144 acres minimum set in the ordinance. But many Planning Commission members and Minner questioned the Southfields team on their calculations, since some that land is green space surrounding the logistics park.

Morris & Ritchie measure that 67 acres of that land is active recreation — 54 acres for the sportsplex and the rest for parkland surrounding the planned neighborhoods, including a clubhouse with a swimming pool.

Wiseman was skeptical that a sportsplex should be included in the open space requirement, but Davis and Southfields attorney Dwight Thomey reiterated that a partnership was being worked out to have the sportsplex open for the community for league sports. The community center would be open to residents of Southfields as well.

“All we’re required to do is to provide the area from a recreational standpoint,” Davis said. “There’s a major park nearby and there’s a community center for the residents as well.”

Some remain unconvinced

Monday’s meeting drew a packed room, although many had gradually left over the course of the four hour meeting. Elected officials like Council President Bob Meffley (District 1), Council Vice President Jackie Gregory (District 5), Councilman Bill Coutz (District 2) and Town Commissioner Earl Piner attended the meeting, although some left throughout the night as it stretched on until 10 p.m.

Many of those who spoke out were frequent critics of the project, like John Conolly, whose backyard would be yards away from one of the proposed warehouses. He argued that the area was not right for a warehouse, but rather an office or business park.

“Just raise the standard of living for everyone in the county. We now have a wonderful opportunity with the merger of our local hospital with ChristianaCares,” he said. “A professional office park would be a better service for Southfields. The priority for the county and town administrators should be the residents, not the developer.”

Responding to that bit of criticism, Davis said that in his 30 years with Morris & Ritchie, the need for professional office space was on the decline, and warehouse use was on the rise.

“We work with some of the largest office developers in the state ...they’re not building office spaces anymore,” he said. “Merrick Properties constructed a beautiful office space off 24 and it sat vacant for three years. Office space may come back, but it’s not a viable use in our database.”

Water and parks issues — and more

John Guns, whose home runs on well water and septic tanks, was concerned that his well will fail faster once the Southfields project gets underway, but he still had outstanding concerns about runoff water and property values.

“My house backs up right to one of the industrial warehouses, and we’re getting nothing but lip service and we’re getting the same thing tonight,” Guns said.

Chris Petrizzo argued that keeping some land for neighborhood parks does little for the tax increases she forsaw coming, once she heard that it would be open for Southfields residents.

“I think when people saw that, the spirit was it would be for anyone in Cecil County, like the park near Big Elk Mall,” she said. “I think that’s duping people with what’s been put out there.”

Peter Klein once again reiterated his concerns about water quality, as he saw the Southfields project as “paving 11 million square feet of parkland.”

His wife Jennifer Jonach raised concerns about the pollution that would come from truck’s exhaust and they come and go.

Wiseman said that he saw the Southfields PUD overlay zone was where the rubber met the road, but stressed to the audience that further details about stormwater management and more would be revealed with the concept plan.

“This plan, this development has come a long way quickly. Sometimes I feel too quickly,” he said. “We have an opportunity to basically make this happen.”

Wiseman apologized to the crowd that remained for allowing Morris & Ritchie additional time to weigh in on the PUD zoning ordinance back in September, between the Planning Commission hearing and the hearing held by the board of commissioners.

“I’ve been kicking myself because I did not run the meeting as I should have,” he said.

Finally, he also criticized the Mayor and Commissioners for amending the Planning Commission’s recommendations for the PUD overlay zone. Before, the commission rejected any warehouse use in large PUDs, but the board of commissioners decided to allow it to with a special exemption.

The idea was that instead of going through one round of approval with the Planning Commission, any warehouse use would have to go through a second round with the Board of Zoning Appeals. But Wiseman said it was a “backdoor” attempt to pass the final decision back onto the board.

“The Mayor and Commissioners decided not to make a decision, and that is why we are here today,” he said.

The PUD overlay zone will go to a public hearing before Mayor Rob Alt and the commissioners on Jan. 15 at 7:10 p.m.

Meanwhile, the special exemption of the warehouse use for Southfields heads to the Elkton Board of Zoning Appeals on Jan. 16 at 6 p.m.

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