A groundswell of community opposition to proposed zoning changes in Baltimore County has led to spirited standoffs between a country club that is a longtime community staple and surrounding residents, as well as a developer and nearby residents.
As representatives from Woodholme Country Club and Bozzuto Homes — the developer that aims to build on the Hidden Waters property on Old Court Road — request zoning changes to allow for homes to be built in higher density than current zoning allows, many residents continue to voice their frustrations through letters, road signs and comments at council meetings.
Baltimore County District 2 Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, said council members will weigh input on the two zoning issues carefully before voting during a special session in Towson on Aug. 30.
“Almost every issue has an emotional component to it,” Almond said, “and we just have to separate that emotional part and look at what’s best for the community. We have to look at this regionally to make sure what I’m doing or not doing is going to be good for these two planned zoning change proposals.”
The requests were submitted under Baltimore County’s Comprehensive Zoning Map Process. CZMP occurs every four years, allowing property owners, businesses and community organizations to petition the seven-member County Council to request zoning changes on a specific property.
Under the proposed zoning change, Woodholme is requesting that 40 of its 225 acres be designated DR 3.5, permitting three-and-a-half houses per acre. Currently, 223 acres of Woodholme’s property are zoned DR 1, meaning only one house can sit on one acre of land. The proposed development would consist of two townhouse communities totalling approximately 170 townhouses, according to David Nevins, CEO of Nevins & Associates, who is acting as a spokesman for Woodholme.
Woodholme aims to sell the property to a developer were the requested zoning change to pass, Nevins said.
This is not the first time Woodholme has attempted to change its zoning.
In 2004, the club requested to rezone 75 acres on a mostly wooded stretch along the south side of Woodholme Avenue, the two-lane road that connects the club and Reisterstown Road just inside the Beltway. That plan, which called for 5.5 houses per acre and 416 total units, was ultimately rejected by the council after community members voiced their displeasure with the development plans.
Almost every issue has an emotional component to it, and we have to separate that emotional part and look at what’s best for the community. — Baltimore County District 2 Councilwoman Vicki Almond
When asked if Woodholme’s membership is down, Nevins said: “The club doesn’t disclose its membership criteria like that. I don’t know the membership numbers, but I don’t think anyone would disclose it, even if I knew it.”
Nevins, a Woodholme member, added that the importance of what the club has contributed to the community since its founding in 1927 should not be lost during a time of transition.
“I can’t emphasize enough how important Woodholme Country Club is to the Baltimore Jewish Community,” Nevins said. “[Woodholme] is a predominately Jewish club whose members give many, many millions of dollars a year to [The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore] and to other charities and so forth.”
But concerns about increased traffic flow and safety rest heavily on the minds of many residents in an area they feel isn’t equipped to handle large-scale construction. Residents in the Pikesville Farms community, nearby Ner Israel Rabbinical College and the North Oaks retirement community stand to be affected.
Richard Kriess, president of the Villages of Woodholme, a community for residents 55 years and older, is fearful young school children will be put at risk when Woodholme Elementary starts back up in August.
“The thing is that you would be adding more young children near the [Woodholme Country Club] golf course who are going to go play, no matter what fences are there,” Kriess said. “They are also going to play at Woodholme Elementary School, where they may go across the street without parental supervision and could get hurt or get hit by vehicles. Also, if they are in school and their parents are late picking them up, they may wander over to the construction area, which is dangerous for obvious reasons.”
He is not the only one who has expressed such feelings regarding the wide-scale impact the community faces as a whole.
Ner Israel president Rabbi Sheftel Neuberger, whose school’s enrollment exceeds more than 500 students each year, believes Mount Wilson Lane has already exceeded more traffic than it can handle on a consistent basis.
He noted that a traffic study conducted by the state within the last year did not take into account all the areas where traffic comes into the narrow two-lane Mount Wilson Lane.
“It’s very simple: Mount Wilson Lane can’t afford to handle the traffic,” Neuberger said. “The traffic study they did was phony — they didn’t take into account any of the traffic that comes in from Reisterstown Road.”
Within a two-mile radius, there is Sol Levinson & Bros., the Woodholme Square shopping center, Woodholme Elementary School and Ner Israel, causing many morning and afternoon rush-hour traffic jams during the school year.
Officials at North Oaks said Woodholme has been responsive to the community’s concerns.
“We are working with officials from Woodholme Country Club to address our concerns about their proposed zoning changes, such as traffic and safety,” North Oaks officials said in an email statement. “We are pleased that Woodholme has been responsive to our concerns and those of our neighboring communities and has shown a commitment to work with all of us to ensure that our concerns are addressed. We are optimistic that, once we have more details and our concerns are addressed, we will be able to support their project.”
About 3.5 miles east of Woodholme at Hidden Waters, the Bozzuto Group, a real estate and development firm based in Greenbelt, Md., is requesting DR 3.5 in order to build 85 units on 25 unprotected acres, according to a document from the Old Court-Greenspring Improvement Association. Like Woodholme, the Bozzuto Group has faced much resistance in its endeavor, as residents have joined together to maintain the 148-acre property on Old Court Road.
Bozzuto officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Some members of the community are pushing for the property to be downzoned to RC 8, which is intended to encourage agricultural use. The classification allows single-family dwellings, farms and limited-acre wholesale flower farms, among other amenities.
Michal Carton, vice president of the Old Court-Greenspring Improvement Association, has spearheaded the fight to downzone Hidden Waters. She has helped post signs along Old Court Road that read “Save Hidden Waters,” created a Facebook group for followers to chat online and met with residents all to boost community awareness.
“We are very, very intimately concerned about the property,” Carton said. “If you’ve driven along Old Court Road to Lightfoot Drive, you can see the number of residents who have joined in with us with signs in support to [downzone] the property as RC8.”
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of nearby Beth Tfiloh Congregation did not take a position for or against development at Hidden Waters.
“There is no way to know how the Hidden Waters proposal is going to affect Beth Tfiloh,” Wohlberg said. “This is more for the residents and community members of the neighborhoods in the area, so we don’t have an official position, but we hope it works out well for everyone involved.”
Much of the controversy surrounding the plans for Hidden Waters stems from Willard Hackerman, a Baltimore developer and philanthropist who owned 136 acres of the land at the time of his death in 2014. Carton said Hackerman put 111 acres into the Maryland Environmental Trust, an affiliate of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, protecting that portion of the property from any kind of commercial development. The requested zoning would apply to the 25 unprotected acres, Carton said.
“This property has literally not been developed since the 1600s; it’s been used as farmland,” Carton said. “In the late 1600s — at least from documents — it was developed between the white settlers of the south and the Indians to the north on the north side of Old Court road.”
The University System of Maryland owns the other 12.5 acres of the land, where chancellor Robert Caret resides in a state-of-the-art three-story mansion. Built by Baltimore lawyer and banker Jacob France in 1936, the 12,606-square-foot mansion has housed the chancellor since the France family donated that part of Hidden Waters to the university system in 1988.
Although talks remain ongoing, there is growing skepticism that the two zoning issues will be resolved.
Almond, for one, said she is not optimistic about brokering an agreement for either the Woodholme Country Club or Hidden Waters disputes. She does expect the council will ultimately come to a unanimous decision on both issues regardless of how they decide to vote on each matter.
“I’m going to take the next couple of weeks to really look at my [Comprehensive Zoning Map Process] issues and make sure I understand each one, where each side is coming from, and make my decisions from the facts,” Almond said. “This is an issue where … I do not see the likelihood of an agreement being reached.”