By: Luke Parker, Capital Gazette reporter
The city of Annapolis’ decision to grant a conservation variance for a proposed retirement community was upheld Friday after a judge found the city Planning Commission had effectively “closed the gaps” left by a written opinion he rejected last year.
Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Mark Crooks’ ruling marked a significant step forward for developer National Lutheran Communities & Services, whose plans to build a nearly 400-unit retirement village along Forest Drive has faced significant headwind since 2010. Opponents to the plan, represented by the group Crab Creek Conservancy, have 30 days to file an appeal.
Forrest Mays, president of the Crab Creek Conservancy, said he believes Crooks “erred” in his opinion and the conservancy’s board is considering an appeal, though he did not say where he believed the judge erred. Mays has been fighting to get the former Crystal Springs Farm property preserved as a park since 2005 when it was annexed by the city.
Cyndi Walters, CEO and president of National Lutheran, a faith-based nonprofit that has served older adults in and around Washington D.C., for over 130 years, commended Crooks’ decision as “strong and convincing,” saying The Village at Providence Point will act as a “positive addition to the community.”
“We are grateful for this decision, which allows us to focus on what truly matters: providing high-quality senior living opportunities that ensure older adults receive the services and amenities they deserve in Annapolis,” Walters said.
Last January, Crooks remanded a written decision put forward by the Planning Commission, which allowed National Lutheran to bypass state and local forest conservation regulations — the development plans to clear 27 wooded acres off Forest Drive and along Crystal Spring Farm Road. At the time, Crooks chastised the commission’s unanimous approval, saying its written decision had simply copied the developers’ application instead of putting together its own argument.
On Friday, the judge was satisfied that the city commission had formulated its own logic and reasoning.
“There’s an honest dispute in this case,” Crooks said, noting that Crab Creek Conservancy had enough standing, or cause, to have brought the case to court.
Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley said the city was pleased by Crooks’ decision and that Providence Point will be allowed to move forward.
“This project will address one of the most pressing issues for Annapolis, a severe lack of housing,” Buckley said. “I know the developers worked to create a plan with unprecedented environmental standards. Getting everyone to the table, including those who originally opposed the project, helped move it forward.”
Initially, when the development was proposed for the wooded property, the plans called for a mixed-use development that would have also brought a shopping center and hotel, as well as restaurants and other residential units, to the city.
After community backlash, the project, then called Crystal Spring Annapolis, was downsized and moved closer to Forest Drive becoming significantly less invasive to the forested area. Only 27 of the property’s 176 acres will be cleared of trees, all of which will be replaced because of Annapolis’ no net loss ordinance. Enacted in 2018, the ordinance requires all trees cut down for development to be replaced.
The only component of the original development that survived was the retirement community and since then, National Lutheran has collaborated with Stop Crystal Spring, the first project’s biggest opponent, to address remaining concerns, including traffic control, future development and stormwater management.
Under the proposed plans, National Lutheran would build 350 apartments and health care suites. The developer has promised to replace every tree it clears, make improvements to traffic patterns at Spa Road and Forest Drive, and install various stormwater management systems. There is also a proposed conservation easement to ensure no future development on the remaining 120-plus acres on the property.
Crab Creek first appealed the proposed development in April 2022, describing “significant issues of merit” regarding the project’s impact and the city’s approval process.
Among those issues was the environmental impact of clearing 60 large trees, worsening traffic along Forest Drive, increased pollution and runoff into Crab Creek, a nearby tributary to the Chesapeake Bay, and displacement of several rare bird species.
Crab Creek hired G. Macy Nelson, an environmental and land-use attorney based in Towson, to represent them. National Luthern has been represented by Annapolis attorney Alan Hyatt.
Gerald Winegrad, a former Maryland politician who led efforts against the larger project, acknowledged Friday that the ideal solution would involve no development, but said that the “realistic” solution of collaboration and compromise worked remarkably well with Providence Point.
“They met every single one of our demands. We don’t support development but we withdrew our objections. There could be no better result for the environment and traffic flow, never,” said Winegrad, who writes an occasional environmental column for The Capital.
Capital reporter Megan Loock contributed to this article.