ELKTON — Immediately after the revelation that south Elkton may be reshaped by a $700 million mixed-use development, residents raised questions whether the surrounding community could support it and what the long-term impact of its arrival would mean for the area.
On Wednesday night, Mayor Rob Alt said Southfields, as the planned unit development (PUD) project is known, has a long way to go until it’s fully realized, including State Highway Administration studies and approvals through the town’s planning process. He encouraged those who packed the town meeting to attend Planning Commission meetings and have their voice heard.
“No one likes it when it abuts their property or their area,” he said before he opened the floor for questions. “But there is going to be a process where you can give input to our community. You can make a difference. This is all conceptual at this point.”
The vision so far for the 650 acres includes 250 acres for industrial use, a combined 120 acres for single-family homes and apartments, roughly 7 acres for commercial and 50 acres for a sports park. The land in question lies between U.S. Route 40 and Frenchtown Road, and bordered by Maloney Road and the Elk River.
If the PUD concept is fully realized within the next decade, it could put up to 1,000 homes and 1,400 jobs south of Whitehall Road. But for now, residents are left waiting for answers on what will happen to impacted schools, roads and the area’s long history.
There are no filed plans with the town, so the Elkton Planning Commission may see changes from the currently proposed concept plan. Alt expects the PUD to enter the formal process by November.
Stonewall Capital principal owner Ray Jackson, who is the contract purchaser for the 650 acres and previously developed the Villages at Belle Hill apartment complex in town, told the Whig this week that he is very familiar with the planning process. He believes that Southfields will only reach its full potential when all parties come together and work as a team.
“It is premature, but in this process, you have to check marks to make it safe and successful,” he told the Whig on Wednesday. “As this process moves forward, we’ll work in concert with the town and the county so this is properly done.”
Impact on schools
On Monday night, County Executive Alan McCarthy fielded concerns from residents whether the southern county schools could handle an influx of children coming from Southfields’ hundreds of planned homes.
“These kids are going to end up at Bo Manor. Elkton will gain tons of tax revenue, while our schools will have to handle all of the kids,” Susie Moore, an Chesapeake City-area resident told McCarthy during his listening tour stop in Cecilton.
The potential Southfields residences will be in the Bohemia Manor feeder pattern, which would currently include Holly Hall Elementary School, Bohemia Manor Middle School and Bohemia Manor High School. The capacity at HHES is 624 students, while BMMS is 601 students and BMHS is 643 students, according to Cecil County Public Schools. Much like other schools in the county, some rely on portable classrooms.
As of now, HHES is at 73% capacity, while BMMS is at 80% capacity. BMHS, the only county high school south of the C&D canal, is at 104% capacity. It has 670 students enrolled, according to officials.
Perry Willis, CCPS executive director of support services, said that it is very early and there is a lot to discuss as Southfields enters the planning process.
“Any speculation is premature, but I have talked with [Mayor Alt] and I asked him to keep us in mind as they start to flesh out what and where these houses will be,” he told the Whig on Thursday.
Capacity and enrollment figures are only one part of the equation when CCPS considers school construction or expansion projects. The building’s age, its maintenance, and when the last time the nearby schools were renovated are also determining factors in the equation, Willis said.
With that in mind, Willis said it’s too early to say whether the schools in the Bohemia Manor feeder pattern will need to be revitalized or not.
“Holly Hall was renovated in 2000, and the lifecycle of a building is 30 to 40 years,” he said. “In our Capital Improvement Program, our focus is on the Chesapeake City Elementary School and then the North East Middle School. To take this on would be a big bite to chew on. We can make changes in the plan, but we have yet to change what can be funded in the next five years.”
Elkton is very proactive in keeping the school system informed in regards to potential development that could impact enrollment, he added. Willis is regularly invited to planning meetings to keep up with any developments on the horizon.
The Southfields project is conceptualized for two single-family home developments as well as a 300-unit, high-end apartment complex. Jackson told the Whig that he expected that it was realistic to expect 100 homes to be built in a year.
“I think that can be handled at a time. But once again, this is about people working in concert with each other. The state has a specific formal for this, and once the data is given to the school system, the county can start to properly plan for the capacity,” he said.
There is also a real possibility that one of the single-family home communities could be a senior living community, he said.
“One thousand homes does seem like it’s a huge impact. It can almost be terrifying. But once you hone down on those numbers, it can seem realistic. It can seem attainable,” Jackson emphasized.
Impact on roads
Alt acknowledged traffic on Route 213, which runs through Southfields toward Chesapeake City, can get congested. Traffic on the surrounding state, county and town roads has been another major concern for residents surrounding the property.
“We know it’s terrible. It’s worse on Friday, Saturday, Sunday when the ‘Pennsylvania Navy’ comes down and makes their way through Chesapeake City,” Alt said on Wednesday. “Those improvements have to be approved by the State Highway Administration.”
In the most recently available SHA report on average daily traffic, Route 213 logs under 20,000 vehicles a day, SHA officials told the Whig. Specifically near the Frenchtown Road intersection, there’s roughly 14,300 cars a day. That count rises to 17,000 cars a day for the Whitehall Road intersection. Traffic on Route 213 at Route 40 was counted at 18,900 cars a day.
Roughly 30,000 vehicles a day drive on Route 40 near Maloney Road, which is maintained by the county. Maloney Road has a few dozen residences along it, and runs parallel to the planned industrial parcel of Southfields.
Both Elkton Department of Public Works Director Dan Handley and SHA spokesman Robert Rager reaffirmed that it’s too early to say what the impact Southfields will have on the roads.
“As [Jackson said], he embraces the team concept for the successful completion of the Southfields project. This same team concept will also involve the SHA and Cecil County with respect to the roads,” Handley wrote to the Whig. “There are no conceptual designs with respect to the roads at this stage of the project.”
The SHA asks developers of a large-scale project that could come with significant traffic to fund a comprehensive traffic impact study, as well as improvements that SHA thinks are necessary to address traffic and infrastructure impacts, Rager said.
“SHA’s issuance of the necessary access permits often is conditioned on the developer’s agreement to fund or construct our recommended improvements,” he explained.
Jackson acknowledged he is required to do a “full-blown” traffic study, noting that it would likely be done with school in session to get a true grasp of the volume with school buses on the roads.
“That is months down the road, and there’s three levels of planning to address that with: the state, the county and the town,” he said.
Regarding Maloney Road, and whether people would use that route to divert around the industrial properties, Jackson was sympathetic, and he would do the best to offset traffic there.
“I’m not proposing we connect to Maloney Road. I understand the community’s concerns, and I can’t control where people drive. But we can do our best to mitigate the traffic there,” he said.
Notably, the first maps of the proposed development appears to show a new access road being put in between Route 40 and Frenchtown Road, which could provide a direct route for trucks and employees to get to the major highway without using local roads.
Impact on nature, history
For years, the 650 acres have been dormant with the exception of a farmer tilling the land east on Route 213. While Jackson has proposed 4 million square-feet of industrial use, Elkton Planning Director Jeanne Minner reaffirmed that the town owns 124 acres neighboring the site.
Those 124 acres are primarily wetlands that were protected years ago, when the previous property owner had attempted to drain them and was later caught by the Maryland Department of the Environment, Minner said.
As a result, the land was placed under a Maryland Environmental Trust easement. When Bruce Schneider bought the land, he deeded it to the town. Jackson can’t develop the land, because he doesn’t own it — and the town won’t develop it.
“With the easement, there are limits on what you can do with it. It can be used for a mulch trail for nature walks or hikes,” Minner said of a possibility.
Jackson has also proposed 113 acres for open space on the east side of Route 213 and 50 acres on the west side. Toward the Elk River, he has tentative plans to build a marina, but the wetlands there present a challenge. Fifty acres has also been set aside for a park, close to the Southfield Park Shopping Center.
Minner noted that with a PUD, the idea is to be flexible, and that all residential development in Elkton is required to have a certain percentage of open space.
“Open space provides recreational, quality-of-life, aesthetic and ecological benefits to the community. With a PUD, the idea is to be flexible with its use, and to provide a cohesive use for development rather than piecemeal it,” she told the Whig.
In the overgrown fields and forests of what will be the Southfield, however, local historian Mike Dixon said are also the remnants of Cecil County’s past.
At the top of the Elk River is the forgotten Henderson cemetery with tombstones dating back to 1777. Frenchtown Village, a prosperous town that flourished as a commercial point in the 18th century, was also settled roughly where Frenchtown Road is today.
“It really was prosperous because it was on the main line of travel. It was the shortest point of travel between Philadelphia and Baltimore,” Dixon told the Whig. “One of the first railroads, the New Castle and Frenchtown, ran through there and it was attacked during the War of 1812.”
Jackson told the Whig later that he was not aware of the historic relevance of the property, but “any and all references” would come out in the deed work that his team is conducting in the due diligence phase.
Alt later noted that if there were any Maryland Historic Trust easements established, Jackson would have to abide by them.
“I understand there’s a cemetery back there. Well, a cemetery is going to stay right there,” the mayor said. “They can’t change those things.”
Jackson has worked with the MHT before, and said he understands how they work. But once again, he said it was too early to confirm if there was a historic site there.
“We’ll figure it out, whether it’s dedicated green space or a MHT easement,” he said. “Obviously we want to develop in concert with whatever easement there is. We will be proactive.”
‘Something to be proud of’
At Wednesday night’s meeting, a handful of Elkton residents shared some of their thoughts with Alt and the town commissioners about Southfields.
Longtime town watcher Richard Lemen voiced his hope that local businesses and contractors would be considered for a project of this magnitude, while resident Kenneth Grippo asked many questions about the recreation aspect, and the vision surrounding it.
Shirley Anderson asked the town officials how the Southfields development would help Elkton’s downtown. Alt replied that “it certainly won’t hurt.”
“You’re looking at 3,000 or 4,000 people in the town of Elkton, and when you look at that, it’s going to have to help our downtown and all the town,” he said.
Rod Burris, who lives near a creek that feeds into the Elk River, expressed his hopes that the buffer would remain. He also wondered whether the water and sewer capacity could handle 1,000 homes and retail and industrial business.
“We’ve had the feeling that our sewer system and our water supply had been stressed all along,” he said.
Elkton has a well that produces 720,000 gallons a month on the site that the town is permitted to use, but it’s possible that this project would need a water tower to be installed for reliability. The closest wastewater treatment plant can treat 3.2 million gallons a day, but currently is only treating 2 million, according to town officials.
If development happens all at once, the town would need to expand its sewer plant. Alt also said that Artesian Water, which provides the county’s water and is a contracted backup to the town, also could supply the needed water, but that would be a temporary solution while the town builds its infrastructure.
At the end of the meeting, Alt stressed that the concept plant was not set in stone. But he did say that he supported Southfields and Jackson’s vision of working as one force to develop this land.
“We as a team have an opportunity to build the south side of Elkton into something we can all be proud of,” he said. “This is going to happen whether we get involved or not. I’d recommend people get involved and let’s make it the best project we can make it.”