Updated: May 13
A Brief History of Mixed Use in Mount Airy
...and how it relates to the Beck Property
What is Mixed Use Development?
Mixed Use Development is generally a mix of housing, civic, and commercial development in one zone. Its purpose is described in Mount Airy Town Code:
“to facilitate the integrated and orderly development of residential uses and nonresidential uses where high-quality mixed-use developments can occur in harmony with surrounding land uses.”
To be clear, the Mount Airy Town Code actually has two types of Mixed Use:
Mixed Use District (MXD)
Mixed Use development in CC District (MXU-CC)
MXU-CC was a special exception “overlay” zoning for the Greentree property, which was previously zoned Community Commercial. MXU-CC allows the Greentree property to have residential in addition to commercial development, but it is still required to follow all town adequate public facilities requirements. This article will focus only on MXD.
How did Mixed Use become a consideration for Mount Airy?
First, it’s important to understand the concept of the Comprehensive Master Plan. This document is officially adopted by the Town every 10 years and spells out the manner in which the Town must develop. The plan has legal significance in that zoning, among other things, must be consistent with its recommendations.
Mount Airy’s last adopted master plan was the 2013 Comprehensive Master Plan. The plan called for the Town to establish Mixed Use Zoning (p. 158) along with Office Park Employment Campus Zoning. I’ll repeat: the plan called for the town to establish Mixed Use Zoning. It is important to note that Mixed Use was not a type of zoning in Town Code at that time.
We know that in June 2017, the Town of Mount Airy and Developers were already deep in the process of writing MXD code. Then, in August 2017, the town put out an RFP for the Development of a Downtown Master Plan for Downtown Mount Airy and the Center Street Corridor.
Design Collective (current Beck development team member) was awarded the $121,000 contract in February 2018 and presented a final plan in March 2019, which the town now refers to as the Downtown Vision Plan. This is an important distinction—the Vision Plan is not the town’s Comprehensive Master Plan.
But here's what's interesting about that vision plan: the #4 focus of the Vision Plan was the connection of Center Street to MD 27. Of course, that street connection would run right through the Beck property. So, Design Collective recommended a mixed use development on the 35.7 acres on Beck West (p. 81), thereby setting the stage for rezoning Beck to MXD. Why did the town, already in the process of writing MXD, need to spend money on a vision plan?
How was Mixed Use Zoning Adopted?
To create a new zone, an ordinance (law) containing the language to be included in the town code, has to be adopted. We know that it was being written as early as 2017 and continued through many iterations. All the while, the developers were there cheering the town on; even helping them write the ordinance. Below is an example of their comments on the document. This one is showing their objection to the Planning Commission holding charrettes or special work sessions:
The town wrote MXD zoning to enable the Beck Property development. And, after many closed-door meetings and emails between developers and the town, the MXD ordinance (2020-01) was adopted in August 2020 (during the pandemic) with a unanimous vote by the Town Council.
How was the Beck Property rezoned to MXD?
Within months of MXD zoning's adoption, the Beck developers were working to get the property rezoned to MXD. And not just the west side of 27 like what was shown in the Vision Plan. They wanted ALL of the Beck Property to be rezoned to MXD. Now, that was never part of the Downtown Vision Plan. Do you think town residents would have liked to have known what the grand plan was during the Vision Plan charrette? The developer and presumably the Town knew that Beck wanted to develop the East side as evidenced in the 2017 email below:
There was just one sticking point on the path to rezoning. Rezoning of the Beck Property (on either side of 27) was not included in the town’s 2013 Master Plan. In fact, they had requested to be rezoned to Community Commercial, but that was denied.
Unless a comprehensive rezoning is planned, parcels may be rezoned based on two criteria:
1. That a substantial change has occurred in the neighborhood
2. A mistake was made during the last comprehensive plan cycle.
The town attorney acknowledged this was a challenge and said the Town would need to make it look less like a mid-term rezoning and more like a Master Plan adjustment. An ordinance would have to be passed in order to rezone the property. That was discussed in a closed-door meeting between the town and developers in May 2021. Council Member Reed walked right into that meeting offering up rezoning. By June 2021, Ordinance 2021-17 to rezone the Beck properties (East & West) was introduced.
When the ordinance came back to the Town Council for a vote after Planning Commission review, Town Council President Jason Poirier was acting Mayor. Mayors have the power to veto ordinances, by the way. So, the vote for rezoning occurred when an elected mayor was not in place to potentially veto the ordinance.
Council Member Domotor shared his concerns with 2021-17 the night of the vote:
...and Council Member Munder also provided a few reasons to delay the vote until after the election:
Ultimately, On October 4, 2021, the Town Council voted to adopt the ordinance in a 3-2 vote with Lynne Galletti, Jason Poirier, and Pamela Reed voting in favor.
What does the Ordinance to Waive Open Space (2021-16) have to do with MXD?
The two ordinances, 2021-16 and 2021-17, were actually introduced together in June 2021 and passed a month apart (October and November 2021). In fact, in town council discussions on the two ordinances, the two were often conflated and discussed as if they were inextricably linked--like you couldn't have one without the other.
If you read the Open Space 101 post, you will recall that Council members noted that without 2021-16, the Beck project would be dead; they were just trying to limit open space requirements for this property.
In any event, by November 2021, all the loose-ends (ordinances and such) necessary for the Beck development to proceed were tied up, thanks to another 3-2 vote from Council members Lynne Galletti, Jason Poirier, and Pamela Reed. Ordinances 2021-16 and 2021-17 were not the only laws created to underpin the Beck property. More on that in a future post.
Developers have been involved in this process since long before the Downtown Vision Plan was created and MXD was passed. They played an integral role in the writing of MXD zoning, which passed in 2020.
While the 2013 Town Comprehensive Master Plan referenced MXD, it was just that—a reference. It was not an enforceable provision.
The Beck Property rezoning (2021-17) was introduced and adopted outside of both the 2013 and 2023 master planning processes. Note: the 2023 Master Planning process had already started in February 2021 and is actually still ongoing as of April 2023, so rezoning for Beck could have been included in that process.
Town Council members in June 2021 acknowledged that Ordinance 2021-17 to rezone the Beck Property was being heard and introduced outside of the master planning process "solely due to the importance of the property", denoting favoritism toward one property. There were other properties in town who tried to follow proper procedure to rezone outside of the master plan, but were unsuccessful.
The Beck Property was rezoned with no documentation on how it met State-mandated criteria for rezoning (mistake or change in neighborhood).
The Beck Property was rezoned 1 month before a new mayor was elected, when the council president was the acting mayor and no one could veto the vote.
Beck East and Beck West were two separate parcels. Beck West was part of the vision plan, while the known concept of Beck East was not. It was not until after the properties were lumped together into a 91-acre mixed use zone (as opposed to the original 37 acres) that residents knew what the developers had planned for Beck East—400 residential units.
With the adoption of 2021-16, Ordinance to Waiver Open Space, MXD developments are afforded the ability to only provide 10% open space with Planning Commission approval, even when the town is in an open space deficit.
More on Comprehensive Master Plans: https://planning.maryland.gov/Pages/OurWork/compplans/background.aspx
Mount Airy MXD Code:
More emails between the town and developers can be found on our Government Transparency Page.