The stakes are high as the city’s elected officials prepare for an upcoming decision on rezoning the Renn Farm property.
Approving the zone change from light industrial to mixed-use will pave the way for the first major development planned for the airport overlay zone, created in the city’s land management code to regulate development near the airport. Rejecting the change means the current zoning will remain, taking the residential component of the project — a mix of townhouses, multi-family homes, houses and cottages totaling 1,050 units — off the table.
The board of aldermen voted to set seven conditions on the rezoning last week, but haven’t actually voted on the zone change itself.
Opponents of the rezoning contend that residential development will jeopardize the future of the nearby Frederick Municipal Airport, citing cases in Santa Monica, California, and Montgomery County where the close proximity between residences and airport runways created safety and noise issues. Pro-rezoning groups support Matan Companies’ project as a key part of redevelopment for east Frederick.
As the rezoning vote approaches — it could happen as soon as the Oct. 1 public hearing — several elected officials asked for additional information to help them understand the project’s true impact (or lack of) on the airport.
Alderwoman Donna Kuzemchak said she wanted to know how the distance between the runways and residences proposed for Renn Farm compared with those near the Santa Monica Airport and Montgomery County Airpark.
Alderman Michael O’Connor agreed, suggesting a graphic that overlays the Renn Farm project on those airports to get a better sense for the comparison.
While developers agreed that these types of images and data could be compiled, the answers to other questions were less clear.
O’Connor asked what the true intent was behind the creation of the airport overlay zone. Code on the zone doesn’t touch on residential development at all, either as permitted or prohibited.
Although Gabrielle Collard, the city’s division manager of current planning, offered some background information, Kuzemchak described her response as an opinion, not an answer.
Kuzemchak said only the officials who created the code can truly answer that question.
Questions also arose regarding the validity of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s warning that rezoning the property could hurt future Federal Aviation Administration funding for the airport.
Although airport manager Rick Johnson said the city currently complies with the grant standards set forth by the FAA, he couldn’t speculate on future compliance given that the grant requirements may change.
Additional inquiries and opinions will likely be brought forward in the weeks leading up to the rezoning vote. The city’s Airport Commission, one of the groups opposed to the rezoning, is slated to discuss the project at its Thursday meeting.
Land management code issues highlighted
In reviewing rezoning requests for both the Renn Farm and the former Coca-Cola plant on North Market Street, at least one city official criticized the process as seemingly counterintuitive.
For an individual property to be rezoned under the current land management code requirements, the mayor and Board of Aldermen must consider conditions of rezoning and the zone change itself in separate meetings. Alderwoman Kuzemchak said the procedure was yet another in a long-cited list of issues with the land management code.
“It makes no sense,” she said, questioning why the conditions and rezoning vote couldn’t take place within the same meeting.
Land use attorney Andrew DiPasquale, representing the developer Catoctin Overlook, also pointed to code problems related to plans to redevelop the former Coca-Cola plant site.
The developer has requested a waiver of the roughly one acre of dedicated parkland that would be required given the scale of the project proposed on the grounds, as well as the commitment to continue the Rails with Trails path across the property, saying that the other recreational amenities on site serve as ample substitute.
Kuzemchak questioned the relative cost of the rails path construction to developing the dedicated parkland. DiPasquale said the cost of each was roughly $150,000 to $200,000, characterizing the $50,000 difference as a “wash.”
But without a property appraisal, which cannot happen until the property is rezoned, DiPasquale said he couldn’t provide more exact numbers.
Even once that appraisal occurs, he said the code doesn’t specify how that land should be valued — as dedicated parkland, neighborhood commercial land (the current zone) or mixed-use (the requested zone).
DiPasquale also criticized the land management code at a Planning Commission meeting Tuesday, urging commission members to not approve an individual amendment to the code until the document could be reviewed more holistically.