Updated: May 10
...and what it means for the Beck Property
If you've been keeping an eye on development issues in town, you may have heard mention of "open space" requirements. Open space is required as part of the town's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. There has been particular concern about open space as it relates to the Beck property, so we thought it would be helpful to go over some of the history.
What is it?
First, the Mount Airy town code defines open space as:
A portion of a development site that is permanently set aside for public or private use and will not be developed. Open space may be community open space or green space. However, open space does not mean land considered unbuildable, existing rights-of-way and utility easements, setbacks and lawns, stormwater management (unless unique forms are used that preserve the area in a natural or forested condition) or roads and parking areas.
So, how does this apply to Beck?
When the Mixed Use District Zone (MXD) was created, it included a record-low open space requirement of only 10% of total gross acreage. For context, the chart showing open space requirements for all other residential developments is below. Commercial developments do not require any open space.
Unfortunately, the Town of Mount Airy is currently in an 80+ acre deficit of open space. When the town is in a deficit, there is a different open space formula that applies. It requires the developer provide 3 acres of open space for every 100 people. Now, that math doesn't suit a developer who is trying to maximize density on a property. What to do? You lobby for a waiver! Ordinance 2021-16, to be exact.
What is Ordinance 2021-16?
Ordinance 2021-16 was introduced in June 2021, coincidentally about one month after the developers met with members of Town Council and staff and discussed waiving open space. In fact, it was characterized by Council Member Reed as a "laundry item that we have to take care of so this development can happen."
Other Reed commentary on 2021-16: "Without 2021-16, the [Beck] project is dead."
...and probably the most specific of all, when Reed references that 2021-16 is for "this particular development [Beck]":
It provides the Planning Commission the ability to waive the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance requirement for open space. In other words, if the town is in an open space deficit, Mixed Use developments will not have to follow the 3 acres per every 100 people. They will still only have to provide 10% open space. From the code:
"The Planning Commission, in its discretion, may grant a reduction to...the open space percentage for the MXD...if it is established by the applicant that the adjustment will be more beneficial to the needs of the community for that specific parcel."
Ordinance 2021-16 was ultimately adopted on November 1, 2021. Why is this significant?
This vote occurred the night before the election of a new mayor (Hushour), who had expressed concerns about the open space waiver. (Let's get it done before he can veto it!)
Jason Poirier, Council President, was Acting Mayor due to the passing of Mayor Rockinberg. Mayors do not have a vote in Town Council matters, but the Town Code allows the Acting Mayor/Council President to continue to vote. The problem is, when this situation occurs, there is no separate veto power.
Private citizens spoke out against this and asked the Council to delay a vote until after the election. Others mentioned this was selling out the town for a Center Street connection.
Concerns were raised by citizens and council members that this ordinance, along with the rezoning of Beck to MXD, was possibly "special legislation" which is unconstitutional under Maryland law.
Larry Hushour Comments on 2021-16:
Former Council Member Patty Washabaugh on 2021-16:
Dick Swanson, Ethics and Water & Sewer Commission:
Leslie Dickinson, Planning Commission:
Council Member Domotor:
Regardless of all that, the ordinance passed in a 3-2 vote with Galletti, Poirier, and Reed voting in favor; Domotor and Munder voting against.
Where are we now?
The Beck Development team is happily chugging along with their pre-concept sketch plan which does not follow the Adequate Facilities ordinance of 3 acres per 100 people. While 2021-16 has been signed into law, the Planning Commission has not made a decision about whether to waive open space requirements for this property. Why should the developers assume they will not have to follow the ordinance?
The development team will tell you how generous they are by preserving 22 acres of open space on a 91 acre property. The pre-concept sketch plan shows a total of 2 acres of community open space and one U12 soccer field. How much of the other 20 acres of open space is actually buildable, per the code requirement? Even the 2013 Master Plan mentions the "topography and heavily forested areas will likely restrict this property from achieving permitted development density."
The Beck Charrette is scheduled for May 20 & May 22nd. This is your opportunity to let the developers know what you want. You are the one who will live here long after the developers have packed up and moved on. Do you want them to throw a bunch of high density development (townhomes, apartments, etc.) into the center of town, bringing in more than 1,400 additional residents with only 2 acres of community open space?
FIGHT FOR OPEN SPACE! It is a finite resource in our town!!