By Erika Huber
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
A group opposed to a recent zoning change that would allow a 100-store outlet mall to be built in White Marsh hope to have about 60,000 signatures on its referendum petition by Oct. 21 to force a countywide vote on the plan in the November 2016 election.
Heather Patti, the president of the White Marsh-Cowenton Community Association, said in an interview that she attended a meeting of the Committee to Protect Baltimore County Zoning Process on Sunday and that the group said it had obtained 30,000 signatures by the initial Sept. 21 deadline — 21,000 more than the group had needed at that point in the petition process.
Those signatures must be checked and approved by state election officials, but organizers believe they will have far more than the 26,414 signatures they need to put a referendum on next year’s ballot.
The committee argues that the Baltimore County Council overstepped its bounds when it voted 7-0 on Aug. 3 to change the zoning regulations so that Baltimore-based Paragon Outlet Partners did not have to go through the regular zoning process to gain approval for its planned $100 million, 390,000-square-foot upscale outlet mall. The shopping center would be located near Interstate 95 just down the street from White Marsh Mall and The Avenue at White Marsh.
The controversy over the new retail development has been brewing since the council approved Bill 53-15, with supporters saying it will bring an estimated 1,600 permanent jobs to the region while opponents argue that it will increase traffic on the already busy Philadelphia Road and potentially lead to more flooding.
More importantly, though, the Protect the Process group and its supporters says Bill 53-15 sets a dangerous precedent in allowing the council to bypass regular zoning procedures that are designed to give residents a chance to voice any concerns they may have about projects being proposed for their communities.
“You may think this bill is specific to White Marsh but I assure you it is not,” Patti said in an Aug. 19 post on her community association’s Facebook page. “As we have seen lately, with the stroke of a pen, or a redefinition of a term, this very dangerous piece of legislation, which completely bypasses the current PUD [Planned Unit Development] appeals process and community input/benefit, could very well affect ALL parts of the county in the future.”
Kelvin Antill, a partner for Paragon Development Partners, said his company downsized its original plans in order to appease community members who opposed the project. He said the company is also building a new ramp from I-95 to Route 43 to “help alleviate some of the existing traffic problems there.”
Along with the ramp, Antill said Paragon Outlet Partners has agreed to comply with stormwater requirements with which it was not obligated to comply.
But Patti said this agreement was only verbal and has yet to be put in writing, perpetuating the community’s concern for the local ecology.
“We suffer a lot of flooding in this area,” Patti said. “Obviously, it’s called White Marsh for a reason. Over the past years of development it gets worse and worse, so we’re not ready to write off the ecology of the river and our properties.”
White Marsh is an area that regularly floods and is encompassed by the highly polluted Bird River. Residents who oppose the plans for the outlets want to prevent worsening issues with erosion control and stormwater management.
Patti believes that those whose utmost concern is for the good of the land are “conveniently left out” of both the legal process and the press.
“Our elected officials wrote a law that benefits only one developer, and that’s Paragon,” Patti said. “They denied us our day in court that we were eagerly awaiting.”
Much of the talk surrounding the outlet controversy has suggested that residents are against commercialization or progression while businesses fear competition, but these reasons are not the focus of the opposition, Patti said.
“A lot of people are calling this ‘the outlets bill’ or ‘the outlets decision,’” she said. “It has nothing to do with that. I don’t really care what gets built there, but it has a responsibility to adhere to the most recent standards for erosion control and stormwater management.”
County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins said she believes Bill 53-15, which she sponsored, has provided solutions for environmental activists and the area in general.
She said that something will be built on the currently vacant 56-acre parcel, adding that the county will benefit more from a commercial development than the possible construction of apartments or other types of housing that would likely be built if this project were to fall through.
“[The outlets] are a huge investment for Baltimore County and it’s a job creator,” Bevins said. “The money that would come from the investment would help our schools and infrastructure. Creating jobs over apartments in an already crowded school system is a win-win for us.”
Bevins said the development should not come as a surprise to the community.
White Marsh Mall was part of an 800-acre build-out that was started in the 1980s, and the outlets will act as the last piece to the development, Bevins said.
Though outlet traffic issues may not be a major concern for everyone in Baltimore County, many commuters who drive through the White Marsh area regularly could be negatively affected if the traffic solutions are not made.
“I live in White Marsh and the idea of an influx in traffic annoys me,” said Towson University senior Faith Bowers. “That said, I find the potential the shopping center has for creating jobs more important. As the population continues to increase, I think it’s inevitable for traffic to get heavier and building projects to occur.”
Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce President Keith Scott believes the job opportunities the outlets would provide could create an environment of hard-working employees and pave career paths for young people.
“If you were to say this is competing with the mall, well what’s wrong with that?” Scott asked. “It’s only going to make the retail operation of the mall work even harder than they do to make things customer-driven, to make the aesthetics of the mall fit for a modern age, and the outlets are going to make sure they are attractive for customers as well.”
Members of Protect the Process did not respond to a reporter’s request for comment. According to previous media reports, it is not entirely clear who is behind the petition drive, although some speculate that it is General Growth Properties (GGP), the owner of the White Marsh Mall, which opposes the new outlet center.
“GGP is not against competition, we welcome it,” Lisa Bisenius, the general manager of the mall, said in a written statement. “But we feel Bill 53-15 sets a dangerous precedent. It bypasses the current land use process; ignores 18-plus months of legal, judicial and community review of the Paragon outlet project; and it benefits only one developer. Whether you are for or against the outlet project, it should earn approval on its merits and not be excused from the normal approval process.”
“This land is going to be developed one way or another,” said Lynn Richardson, president of the Perry Hall/White Marsh Business Association. “One way will be outlets, which will be attractive, thought-out and planned with great care towards environmental impact.”
As a business expert, Richardson supports the outlets and believes those who are fighting their creation are fighting an option better than the alternative. If the outlets were to be rejected, she said, affordable housing would be built instead.
“If you have a choice between retail with a [highway] ramp or affordable housing without a ramp, I’d choose retail,” Richardson said. “And let’s put it this way, if I was a college student, I’d rather work at Michael Kors than Taco Bell.”