On the surface, updating a portion of Frederick County’s zoning law to allow scuba diving and recreational uses at a quarry and mining operation near Woodsboro might seem like a simple change.
But much like the ecology deep underwater at the reservoir at Comus Construction, changing the code to allow those uses is a multi-layered task, county officials said this week.
County Council Vice President Michael Blue (R) said he is looking to set up a meeting in the next few weeks with Comus Construction owner Brad Hill and scuba instructor Matt Skogebo — the two partners who want to open a scuba training facility, ecology center, RV campground and clubhouse/restaurant — and county planning officials.
Mike Wilkins, the county’s director of the Department of Development and Review, said the mineral mining district where Hill and Skogebo are proposing their project is a “floating zone.” Some parcels under that designation in the county might look like farmland, he added, because that designation is an overlay on agricultural land.
Blue had originally proposed a change to the mineral mining district, including defining a scuba operation, but county planning staff advised him the language was too broad.
“If we just had very broad legislation that allowed scuba facilities in the mineral mining zone, potentially someone could construct what would appear to be a commercial swimming pool facility in a mineral mining parcel that’s not being mined, one of those parcels you drive by today that looks like a farm,” Wilkins said.
Some of the consequences of allowing that would be inadequate infrastructure in the area, impacting agricultural land that could be preserved or placing a commercial operation near neighbors who wouldn’t want the noise and additional traffic, he said.
Steve Horn, division director of planning and permitting for the county, said one of the challenges with changing the code is creating competing land uses within the same parcel.
According to the current code, mineral mining allows for the following uses:
- Agricultural and forestry activities, as permitted under the county’s agricultural zone or whatever the parcel was attached to;
- Mineral extraction and processing;
- Accessory uses, like an office space and facilities for repairing mining equipment.
Along with land use, the new code must be written so it doesn’t deter Skogebo and Hill from accomplishing their overall project, Wilkins said.
“Let’s just say the bill establishes some ... requirements. You can’t have any of the facilities within 100 feet of any property line,” Wilkins said of one broad example. “Looks good, but we adopt the bill, they come in with a site plan for this project, and low and behold, when you apply this 100-foot setbacks, there’s no room for them to build what they actually want.”
Both Hill and Skogebo said this week they’re willing to work with county staff to draft a more specific change to the mineral mining code.
“We aren’t offended in the use, if they’d like to make it tight,” Hill said. “We intended to give them a broad stroke rule to get more attention. And as they progress, we’re going to get that more specific language.”
One specific aspect of the mineral mining district is that “all accessory uses shall occupy no more than 25 percent of the land zoned mineral mining.”
Skogebo said, however, that Hill’s entire property covers 1,600 acres, and the areas including the reservoir, the ecology center, RV campground, ecology center and other side projects would only take up a maximum of 30 acres.
Horn and Wilkins said it’s still unclear whether those accessory uses could be allowed through legislation. Wilkins said staff are currently researching any similar scuba facilities through the region to see if any related zoning designations could be used to help craft a change to Frederick County’s code.
Skogebo, who owns Aquanautics, a scuba shop near Baltimore, pointed to two scuba operations outside the state — Dutch Springs near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Lake Phoenix in Rawlings, Virginia, — but added neither encompass the entire scope of his and Hill’s proposed project.
“What we’re tying to do is very unique, none of them are built on the same amount of investment,” Skogebo said. He’s placed preliminary estimates for all components at the project at around $30 million. He said he’s spent a little more than $100,000 on engineering and preliminary designs.
His nonprofit, Juturna Springs, would operate the ecology center and scuba training facility. Blue said his intent is to draft legislation that prevents others from creating less expansive versions of Hill and Skogebo’s vision.
“We don’t want these facilities to be all over the county if they don’t look like what Juturna Springs looks like, because of what it brings, the aesthetics, the ecological, the educational [aspects],” Blue said. “I don’t want somebody to be able to compete against them by building something [like] a dive tower facility.”
It might be up to Hill and Skogebo to further work with county staff to identify how the ecological center, clubhouse/restaurant and other aspects might be allowed within county code, Blue said. He added that’s because of the complexity of all those uses within a mineral mining district.
“I’m not bypassing that, I’m just getting them in the playing field,” he said. “How they go from there is up to them.”