County OKs apartments

Commissioners overrule planning board to approve zoning change

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Charles County commissioners unanimously voted to override the county planning commission’s recommendation Tuesday and approved a zoning change for a Waldorf property from commercial to high-density residential.

The decision allows developer Jerry Lenhart to proceed with plans to build upscale condominiums on the Hamilton Park property on Western Parkway near Wexford Village, a property previously zoned for a business park.

The commissioners endorsed Lenhart’s argument that the construction of Western Parkway has fundamentally altered the character of the neighborhood, allowing for the rezoning of the property, even though the rezoning does not conform to the county’s comprehensive plan.

The planning commission rejected this argument in a 3-2 vote March 3, ruling that the road had been planned since the 1980s and its construction did not constitute a significant change.

‘‘There’s a big difference between the idea of a road and the construction of the road,” said Commissioner Gary V. Hodge (D). ‘‘I believe it has changed the neighborhood.”

Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D) concurred, saying, ‘‘I feel comfortable — using that base of reasoning, in this instance – not following the recommendation of the planning board. ... I believe there has been substantial change.”

‘‘This property is across a four-lane highway from a business park,” Commissioner Samuel N. Graves Jr. (D) observed. ‘‘I respect and appreciate the input of the planning commission, but I believe there had been a significant change in the neighborhood.”

The commissioners’ decision was supported by testimony last month from a representative of the Wexford Village homeowners association. The county’s housing commission also sent a letter of support, endorsing the condo plan as an opportunity for young buyers to enter the real estate market.

The planning commission’s March decision was made during the absence of two members, a fact which Hodge was quick to point out both last month and Tuesday.

‘‘Three of the seven members voted not to change the zoning,” Hodge said later. He said he would be reluctant to overrule a majority ruling by the full board, but he said, ‘‘We had a vote of the minority of the planning commission.”

Collins later added that the commissioners are in full support of ‘‘providing varying housing options that may be attractive to younger homeowners.”

Collins said Wednesday that the commissioners are preparing to make a full court press for new affordable and workforce housing in the county.

When asked why the commissioners chose to rezone commercial property, which historically brings more tax revenue to the county’s coffers than it uses up in revenue, Hodge said that the condo plan’s proximity to an existing business park would create opportunities for the existing park.

‘‘The reality is, if we can have [all zones] within a close proximity, we also reach that goal,” Hodge said. ‘‘[The condo plan] fills the niche we’re looking to fill.”