The Capital: “Victory delayed in epic land-use battle over Crystal Spring in Annapolis”

Capital Gazette: Commentary, December 15, 2023

By: Gerald Winegrad, Capital Gazette Columnist

The land-use war over the 176-acre site known as Crystal Spring has raged since 2010. My direct engagement as the co-leader of the resistance to the plan for a sprawling, massive development began in January 2013. I knew from experience this would be a quagmire and, that once I entered the fray, I would sink deeper and deeper.

My instincts were well founded as 11 laborious years and more than 2,000 hours of my time later, the battle rages on. Herculean efforts by our broad-based coalition of community leaders were co-chaired by David Prosten and me.

Prosten was then the county Sierra Club chair. We had a core group of 60 community leaders, including Annapolis resident and former Gov. Parris Glendening, the father of smart growth.

We had thousands of supporters and formed Concerned Citizens for Proper Land Use. We raised $250,000 to fight development plans using attorneys, engineers, landscape architects and PR specialists.

These efforts led to city approval of a plan for a senior-only living facility (The Village at Providence Point) clustered closest to Forest Drive. Incredibly, its construction would meet all our stringent demands on traffic, forest conservation, stormwater management and permanent protection for 80% of the site.

We are convinced the agreement we reached can serve as a model for future developments and, given that the 176-acres are zoned for development, the deal is the best that can be achieved. But repeated litigation by a few folks have blocked the senior living facility.

The sole mission of those suing is to block any development of the site, subverting all property rights of the owners. In 2022 and 2023, the litigants, including a resident on the site, sued the city in circuit court based on legal technicalities surrounding the city approval of forest conservation variances. Their attorney found no other fault with the many other approvals for the project.

The latest court hearing was on Dec. 6. The judge is to decide the case in mid-January.  The “nasty” developer the litigants rail against is National Lutheran Communities & Services (NLCS), which has roots in providing senior living facilities going back to 1895. The litigation comes after 13 years of battles and five previous plans being rejected by the city.

Originally, NLCS and its senior facility were only one part of a large destructive development plan covering the site with 500 senior and non-senior housing units, a major shopping center, an 80-room hotel, an amphitheater and a grocery store.

When we succeeded in eliminating everything but senior housing and consolidating the project hard against Forest Drive, the Connecticut real estate speculators behind the plan abandoned their efforts.

NLCS changed from adversary to cooperator in meeting our four remaining concerns. This was after eliminating all retail and non-senior development and protecting wetlands, a stream and 25-acres in the Critical Area. Our four demands centered on:

Traffic

Significant intersection and road improvements by NLCS will minimize, and may improve, traffic flows. A new left turn lane on Spa Road at Forest Drive will be added and NLCS will pay for the cost of right of way acquisition for a connector road from the property paralleling Forest Drive to connect Spa Road to Skipper Lane near the CVS, reducing Forest Drive traffic. There will be a walking/biking trail along the new Skipper Lane extended and around the entire perimeter of the project.

Forest conservation

Clearing was reduced from 40 acres to 27 acres, leaving 97 acres of intact forest. All forest cleared will be replaced on site with native trees. Remarkably, the site will maintain 124 acres of forest after development, the same as now exists and will remain in perpetuity including reforestation. Another 345 landscaping trees will add 3.8 acres of tree canopy. No further forest clearing may occur.

If this project were in the county or built under the state forest conservation law, no reforestation would be required. This is due to city enactment in 2018 of the strictest forest protection measure anywhere in the Chesapeake region with a requirement to reforest all trees cleared unless $435,600 an acre is paid to replant the forest elsewhere.

We played a key role in the enactment of this law. Despite this remarkable forest preservation outcome for TVPP, the litigants continue to sue over the forest conservation plan.

Stormwater

Precedent-setting stormwater management plans achieve our goal that a 25-year storm event (6.2 inches) be managed with no increase in the rate, volume or pollutant loads from the predevelopment site. Stormwater will not exceed that from a forest in good condition, meaning improvement over current conditions.

NLCS will install 79 rain gardens (1.2 acres) and 1.4 acres of green roofs and will restore a stream channel under Spa Road at a cost of $500,000, eliminating a major source of Crab Creek pollution. Most parking spaces will be placed underground or under buildings. Other spaces will have porous surfaces.

No future development of the site

There can be no future development of the 176-acre site beyond The Village at Providence Point except for a new wellness house for cancer patients and limited equestrian-related barns and stables.

With all of these concessions, our leaders unanimously decided to drop our objections. The City Planning Commission’s approval of the project incorporated these measures into its approval. We all realized we would never obtain a better deal for these 176-acres with only a senior continuing care retirement community to be built and forever limited to 15.25 acres of impervious surfaces.

In a perfect world, the 176-acre site would be preserved. This was our original mission. But securing federal, state and local funds for acquiring the property as a park or gaining conservation easements to protect the land proved impossible.

There was little support from elected officials and the property owners were unwilling to sell. The cost was also a major barrier, likely exceeding $50 million. The land is zoned for development as an Economic Opportunity Area and was designated as a Priority Funding Area under Maryland’s Smart Growth law, meaning it was prime for development, already served by water and sewer.

Despite the litigation, the 176-acres are not going to sit as is. After much discussion and reflection, we believe the current project is as good as it gets.

The Village at Providence Point will consist of 272 independent senior living apartments and 30 cottages along with 48 health care units for memory care and skilled nursing. There will be no retail and no further development on the site.

Already, 240 seniors have reserved 153 independent living units and deposited more than $10 million in hopes of living there. They await the judge’s decision.

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