ELKTON — After weeks of unanswered questions and confusion, the neighbors of the proposed Southfields planned-use development have taken their concerns directly to the developer.
A group of residents met with Ray Jackson, the principal owner of Stonewall Capital and the developer of Southfields, as a way to discuss their concerns face-to-face. The meeting was not open to the general public.
The Nov. 6 meeting was facilitated by Councilman Bill Coutz (District 2) after he and Council Vice President Jackie Gregory (District 5) met with a group of residents to hear their concerns.
Since then, Jackson has been fielding questions and comments from the residents via email and over the phone.
“In my mind, it’s progress,” Jackson told the Whig. “It was very respectful, and at the least, I felt like some may be more receptive to it because I’ve been transparent and open to hearing their concerns.”
John Conolly, a resident who frequently voiced his concerns on Southfields, walked away from last week’s meeting feeling like the door is now open for more communication.
“Overall, I think it was a great meeting,” Conolly said in a separate interview. “The exchange was very positive, and we were able to get our concerns out there and make Mr. Jackson aware of them. The meeting has helped set the stage for more productive conversations to come.”
Southfields promises to transform the region with jobs in the light industrial and retail use, but some residents who live near it are concerned about the noise, traffic and the water runoff that could come with the project.
The concept has been a controversial issue, and one community meeting hosted by Elkton officials in August quickly turned into sharp rebukes of Jackson and the project itself.
Unlike that community meeting, which was three hours of criticism of Southfields, Conolly felt like the Nov. 6 meeting was productive and opened the door for more like it in the coming weeks.
“Change is difficult to accept with open arms in most cases, but when there’s an understanding of the project itself, it tempers that,” he said. “Everyone has their ideas and passions about it, but I think the passage of time and more information has helped.”
Although the proposed PUD is within Elkton town limits, many residents who live near the property — but out of town limits — have felt frustrated and that they have limited say in the project. Some of these residents have rallied in some fashion through texting and social media applications and out of public view.
Out of that frustration, residents approached Coutz and Gregory in October and asked to be heard. Coutz was approached because he attended many of the meetings on Southfields, he said. Gregory said that she was approached by a resident when she started her re-election campaign and has since built a rapport with her.
“They felt like since they are county residents and not town residents, they wanted to be heard by their representatives,” Gregory said. “It’s affecting their properties, and they didn’t want to wait for the information to come out anymore.”
Coutz and Gregory met with residents on Oct. 22 to hear their concerns, although both council members said they was made clear that they had no power over it. Council President Bob Meffley (District 1) was invited to attend, but he declined.
The residents kept returning to the same central issues: runoff, buffers and the jobs created from the light-industrial use. In turn the residents asked Coutz to set up a meeting with Jackson.
“That meeting was possibly the greatest thing that could have happened,” Coutz told the Whig later. “People met with Ray for a courteous and respectful conversation. Their concerns were heard and understood, and now they’re engaging with him one on one now.”
While Meffley said that he was pleased with the end result for the people of the county, he was not happy about how it transpired. He learned of the Nov. 6 meeting when it was leaked on social media the day before.
“If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have known about it,” Meffley said. “But I’m happy for the residents on Frenchtown and Maloney Road because they got the answers they needed.”
Meffley and Coutz attended the Nov. 6 meeting, but Gregory did not because doing so would create a quorum of council members, which would trigger the state’s open meeting law.
During the meeting, Jackson introduced a detailed concept plan, which answered many of the residents concerns. It show buffers around the light-industrial complex and a single point of access via U.S. Route 40. The size for this parcel has also shrunk down from 4.2 million square feet to 3 million square feet.
Another highlight was the boulevard — two lanes of egress and two lanes of ingress – that would lead to the residential and retail parcels west of Route 213. The traffic study has been completed, with requests for traffic signals, and filed with the State Highway Administration for review.
Stormwater management will be addressed through improved options with filtrations, and Conolly said that he was corresponding with Jackson to learn more details.
One question Jackson couldn’t answer is the type of jobs that would be created by the industrial complex.
“There’s no specific tenant there yet, so there is no answer. But I have engaged with county Economic Development Director Chris Moyer on possibilities,” he said.
Moving forward, both Jackson and Conolly are hopeful that last week’s meeting signals a change with communication with the Southfields project. Jackson said the biggest challenge has been the misinformation against the project on social media, but believes he can continue to combat it with transparency.
“It’s an important part of the process to get the right information out there,” he said. “I’m going to continue to take their concerns and be transparent, which will quell the rumors and their fears.”
Conolly hopes that the “positive and proactive” experience that he had on Nov. 6 will continue.
“Mr. Jackson is the face of the Southfields project, and so we have to work with and work through him to make sure our concerns are heard,” he said. “We want to be involved in shaping Southfields. We residents will be here when it comes and we want to make it the best it can be.”