Full Disclosure: I am a current board member of the Hickory Ridge Village Board, but I am not running for re-election.
After nearly two years of testimony and countless hours spent in 16 separate hearings, the Howard County Zoning Board (made up of the 5 members of the Howard County Council) abdicated their responsibility to decide whether or not Kimco's proposed redevelopment of the Hickory Ridge Village Center meets the zoning criteria for approval.
Instead, on April 12, the Councilmembers, in a 4-1 decision (Dr. Opel Jones being the lone "no") voted to send the issue to mediation in hopes that a compromise solution could be brokered between Kimco, the Hickory Ridge Community Association, and a group of vocal residents opposed to the redevelopment proposal.
Mediation makes the forthcoming Hickory Ridge Village Board election even more consequential, as a new village board will now be tasked with representing the interests of the community during these mediation proceedings. The election is April 24 and the newly elected board will be seated shortly thereafter. Incumbents Janssen Evelyn, Fred Johnston, Gregg Schwind, and Skye Anderson are seeking reelection to remain on a Board that has previously recommended approval of redevelopment provided certain requirements are met.
An opposing slate of 5 candidates composed of individuals who have testified against the redevelopment plan are running on a platform opposed to village center redevelopment. Up until yesterday's decision, this slate's attempt to make the election a referendum on the village center redevelopment was largely moot since the decision was in the hands of the Zoning Board. Now, with the unexpected decision to refer the case to mediation, the Village Board will suddenly have a much more prominent role in representing residents' interests in forthcoming proceedings.
While the intent of mediation is that an independent mediator will help identify an amenable solution agreeable to all parties, I fear that a compromise will not be reached. I don't foresee those opposed to the village center redevelopment willing to compromise to a mutually acceptable plan. Discussions on redeveloping the Hickory Ridge Village Center began over a decade ago, and those opposed to the Village Center redevelopment have been maneuvering all throughout the process to delay the case for as long as possible. Sending the case to mediation gives those opposed to redevelopment further opportunity to ensure things drag on. From my perspective, I don't envision a scenario in which opposition residents will agree to any mediated redevelopment plan that includes enough apartments that will make it financially viable for Kimco to move forward with their proposal to add new restaurants, retail, and a new community green to our village center. While the opposition party claims to support a vibrant refreshed village center, they have put forth no credible alternative to Kimco's proposal and seem determined only to obstruct.
The Hickory Ridge Village Board issued an addendum community response statement in early 2020 that already offered a compromise solution. The Village Board indicated support for the redevelopment plan only if certain requirements were met. These requirements include: reducing the number of apartment units to not overwhelm other uses at the Center, limiting the height of the apartment building, ensuring parking meets applicable parking regulations, verification of the accuracy of a traffic study, and the implementation of pedestrian safety and traffic calming measures. This revised CSR already provides a compromise that best reflects the desires of the entire community, including those Hickory Ridge residents in favor of the redevelopment proposal while incorporating the concerns from Hickory Ridge residents who took issue with Kimco's original proposal. As recently as 2 weeks ago during summation to the Zoning Board case, the Community Association continued to ask the County Council that the village center redevelopment be approved in accordance with the addended CRS.
The Hickory Ridge Community Association, recognizing the deterioration of the village center and loss of merchants, have taken a supportive position to the redevelopment with a recognition that modernization of the village center is necessary to ensure the village center remains a focal point of civic life, just as Rouse intended. A modernized concept will enable the Hickory Ridge Village Center to thrive for decades to come by providing new public spaces for hosting community events and helping to attract new restaurants and neighborhood serving retail tenants alongside existing long-standing favorites, whose businesses would all benefit from having new residents living on site.
If re-elected, the current board members could use the opportunity that mediation provides to provide further input and seek additional concessions from Kimco. Speaking solely from my own perspective as a Hickory Ridge resident, I would prefer that the village board ask that instead of reducing the number of apartments or height of the building, a percentage of units instead become low or moderately priced affordable units. I would also request that the community input be considered for the type of retail tenants, and ask that preferences be given to tenants that are locally-owned, veteran-owned, women-owned, or minority-owned small businesses. Furthermore, I would support negotiating with Kimco to provide funding towards implementation of components of the Hickory Ridge Bike Corridor Plan and Walk Howard initiatives that would improve cycling and pedestrian connections between the village center and adjacent neighborhoods.
If opposition candidates are elected, they will control the community association and its~$300,000 budget that comes from Hickory Ridge resident's annual CA assessment. The village board could, if they so choose, monopolize the village association's time and money - redirecting village money away from resident services, community events, and neighborhood amenities towards mediation attorneys, appeals, or other legal challenges to continue to drag this process out indefinitely. If elected, a conflict of interest would present itself as these same individuals participating in mediation as part of the opposition party would also be tasked with representing the views of the entire community as board members of the community association.
The County Council is responsible for deciding whether Kimco's proposal for the Hickory Ridge Village Center redevelopment meets the requirements of a village center, as defined in Howard County zoning regulations. After the Council spent two years listening to testimony on whether or not these criteria are met, they opted against making a ruling, and instead referred the case to another arbitrator. If mediation fails to provide an agreeable compromise, then we are right back to where we were: the Zoning Board. Given the circumstances we find ourselves in, I believe even more strongly that supporters of smartly redeveloping the Hickory Ridge village center need to do all that could be done to ensure the re-election of Janssen, Fred, Skye, and Gregg to the Hickory Ridge Village Board.