Home conversion to clinic draws fire

Residents slam new zoning in town of La Plata

Friday, Nov. 19, 2010

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Staff photo by SARA POYNOR
Dr. Muhammad Ashraf has submitted a rezoning request that would allow him to open a medical clinic on Oak Avenue in one of the town's historic residential areas.

When a doctor purchased a vacant residential property on Oak Avenue in La Plata with the intent of making it a clinic, the neighbors were not happy.

Many feared the impact the business will have on the historic residential area.

In 2009, as the town was updating its comprehensive plan, the planning commission made a recommendation for two new zoning categories, one of which became known as the planned redevelopment and infill district, or PRID, said Daniel Mears, town manager.

The PRID is an overlay zone where "the base zoning of a particular property remains the same, however, an overlay zone, if approved by the town council with a recommendation from the planning and zoning commission, can allow for modifications to that base zoning," he said.

When applicants seek specific changes to the zoning code, such as to alter the density that is allowed or to change uses, they must submit a master site development plan, which then is reviewed by the planning commission, and a public hearing is held before the commission makes a recommendation to the town council. The council also holds a public hearing.

The PRID overlay zone was approved unanimously in May.

Oak Avenue resident Robert Boyce wrote in a letter to the Maryland Independent that council members Joe Norris and Wayne Winkler have a conflict of interest when dealing with the new zone because they live within the PRID overlay, which lies along Washington Avenue and surrounds Civista Medical Center.

Ward 4 Councilman Norris said that the PRID zone was a recommendation of the town planning commission as part of the comprehensive plan.

"I knew at the time where the zones were, and I didn't even think about whether I was in or not in it, to be honest," he said. "I was voting for an overall package."

Ward 1 Councilman Winkler didn't respond to a request for comment Thursday.

"The concept and development of the PRID was an outgrowth of planning commission work sessions to update the comprehensive plan, which began in late 2008," Mears said, adding that neither were elected to the council until May 2009 and did not participate in the development of the zoning category.

Mears also said the town received the first request for rezoning from Dr. Muhammad Ashraf, who said he wants to make the home into a clinic, in June or July.

At Tuesday night's work session, the town council looked at the comments residents submitted and discussed the petitioner's request.

Mayor Roy Hale apologized for being out of town during the October public hearing and recognized that it is a very sensitive issue for residents.

He questioned whether or not the doctor's office would be compatible with the neighborhood's nature.

At last month's public hearing, Ashraf's attorney, Louis Jenkins, made a presentation and a few residents shared their opinions.

Jack Warren, a resident of Oak Avenue, spoke at the October hearing. He said he has worked in historic preservation for most of his career. He served on the faculty at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., as managing director of Historic Fredericksburg Foundation and most recently as executive director for The Society of The Cincinnati in Washington, D.C.

"I started to quote a section of the [PRID] and that's when [Winkler] cut me off and said, ‘We don't need you to read to the law to us,'" Warren said, adding that he was only able to speak for about four minutes whereas the petitioner was able to conduct a presentation for roughly 15 minutes.

Mears said the town followed all of its public hearing rules.

"Petitioners are allowed a time to [make] a presentation in regards to what is being characterized in the request for change," he said. "Individuals are allowed three minutes to speak. Those interested in representing a group are given five minutes to speak and ultimately those are the discretion of the chair."

After the 2002 tornado, residents spent years rebuilding their homes, said Janet Tew, Warren's wife.

"I guess what's so upsetting about this is that in June of this year, the council adopted this ordinance unbeknownst to any of our neighbors who are affected by [it]," she said, adding that she feels the ordinance allows for commercial development in a residential area and takes away the property owners' rights.

"Without rezoning the properties, they are basically saying that if your neighbor sells his house and his house is residential, any business can come in and run their business from the house without rezoning. All of the residents are up in arms about this."

Normally, PRID overlays "are used to facilitate adaptive reuse of stressed properties or the placement of buildings on lots that are a little strange in shape," Warren said.

"It's kind of a way of institutionalizing the granting of zoning variances. Before a law of this kind, someone who wants a zoning variance needs to go in front of the Board of Zoning Appeals. They can grant a variance. This is a way of institutionalizing the process, streamlining it, making it possible for people to have slightly alternative uses."

As the council examined the PRID laws at the work session, it discussed whether or not the proposed clinic is compatible with the neighborhood, improves the character of the neighborhood and allows for the development of an underutilized, transitional property or vacant lot.

Ward II Councilman Keith Back responded, "This does none of those," adding that three immediate neighbors will have a parking lot approximately 10 feet from their back door.

One of the conditions of this particular petition, if approved, included installing a buffer system.

"If you have to shelter neighboring homes from a business" it shows it may not be compatible with the neighborhood, Hale said.

Mears said at the work session that anyone who wants to operate a business under the PRID zoning has to submit a request along with a master site development plan for approval. If approved, the zoning is "tied specifically to the requested use and the property itself. The zoning does not impact a general permissible zoning category."

This means that it is more restricted.

"If a doctor's office is approved and those owning and operating a doctor's office want to sell it to a restaurant, that would not be allowed. That same doctor could sell his practice to another doctor that would continue to operate that doctor's office," Mears said.

Tew said there is so much commercial property available in the town that she doesn't understand why anyone would put a clinic in a residential area.

"You can drive half a block away from this property and there's a vacant building. There's the Bolton building, the Baldus center, the building across from the post office. It makes no sense why they would force a clinic in a home."

Oak Avenue is the oldest residential subdivision in La Plata, Warren said, adding that it was subdivided in the 1880s and several properties are declared historical landmarks under state rules for designating historical sites.

"It's an expression from the town and the state that they ought to be preserved. The idea of preservation is that the buildings remain in use for the purpose for which they were built," he said.

Jenkins declined to comment on his client's behalf.

The town council will vote on the matter at its Dec. 21 meeting.

Norris' home is one property away from the proposed clinic on Oak Avenue and he doesn't consider himself to have a conflict of interest, he said, although he admitted he is undecided at this time if he were going to vote on the matter next month.