The Howard County Board of Appeals is currently deadlocked in a 2-2 tie as they deliberate whether to overturn a 2021 Howard County Planning Board decision denying approval for the Lakeview retail strip-mall style commercial building containing a fast-food drive-thru on Broken Land Parkway across from Lake Elkhorn.
The proposed building would be sited in the Lakeview Office Center on Broken Land Parkway across from Lake Elkhorn in the Village of Owen Brown. The 24 acre office center currently includes four office buildings that were constructed in the 1980s that contain approximately 220,000 square feet of office space that can house approximately 550 employees. The majority of the acreage of the property contains surface parking lots. A CA pathway at the south-eastern edge of the parking lot connects the site to the Patuxent Brach Trail and the pedestrian tunnel under Broken Land Parkway leading to Lake Elkhorn.
The Lakeview building owners have proposed to construct a stand-alone 1-story, 8,373 SF retail building that includes a fast food type restaurant with a drive-thru lane and space for up to five additional retailers in the strip-mall style development in the section of the parking lot along Broken Land Parkway. An outdoor concrete patio, new landscaping and landscaped islands, an asphalt pathway, internal sidewalks, parking, curbing, storm-water management, and outdoor lighting are included in their proposal. Additionally, a 10-foot wide path would be added to connect the site to the the CA path and adjacent parcel to the north. A second retail building is planned for a subsequent phase. This Columbia Association memo from 2018 has lots of additional background information.
In 2018 when this retail building was first proposed, it was announced that Chipotle had agreed to occupy the restaurant space containing the drive-thru and leasing material continue to list Chipotle as the anchor tenant. Chipotle have recently been testing an all-digital drive-through and pickup window concept, Chipotlane.
Like most of Columbia, the planning, review, and approval for this site is governed by the New Town (NT) Zoning Development process. As part of this process, a final development plan (FDP) dictates the permitted uses, setback requirements, building height, lot coverage, landscaping, parking, and other general requirements for development on a parcel of land. The FDP for Lakeview was originally approved in 1965 and last amended in 1976. Once an FDP is in place, a site development plan (SDP) - containing detailed engineering drawings depicting the specific site improvements and building plans - must then be submitted to and approved by the Howard County Planning Board in order for a building permit to be issued enabling construction to begin. As part of the this review, the Planning Board considers whether the SDP complies with the approved FDP for that site. SDPs for the office buildings in Lakeview were approved in the 1981 and 1984, respectively, and the SDP for this new retail building was considered by the Planning Board in early 2021.
While not a required step in the zoning approval process, the plans for the Lakeview retail center were voluntarily submitted by the applicant for review by the Design Advisory Panel of Howard County in 2018. The DAP made five non-binding recommendations to improve the siting, architecture, and pedestrian connections of the proposed development. Some of these recommendations were incorporation into the submitted SDP while others were not.
The Columbia Association testified to the Planning Board in opposition to the project stating changes are needed to better maintain the aesthetic sensibility of the Broken Land Parkway corridor. The Owen Brown Community Association submitted a letter acknowledging that retail and restaurant development would be a better use of space than a parking lot, but would only support the proposal provided Broken Land Parkway retains its character as a parkway with appropriate setbacks and greenery and are opposed to development that risks turning BLP in the Rt. 40 or Rt. 1 corridors.
On January 21, 2021, the Planning Board unanimously voted 5-0 to deny the SDP for the proposed commercial/retail building for "the reasons that were discussed and recorded during the Planning Board work session" (video), which included the rationale that the site design was not compatible with the aesthetics of Broken Land Parkway.
In May 2021, the Board of Appeal Hearing Examiner denied an appeal of the planning board decision, thus sending the case to the Howard County Board of Appeals, which is now in process of hearing an appeal of the case and must decide whether to uphold the planning board's decision or grant an appeal that would allow for the the development to be built.
The Appeal Board is normally comprised of five resident volunteers, but there is currently a vacancy, so there are currently only four sitting members. During their February 17, 2022 virtual hearing/work session (video), the Board first voted to remand the case back to the Planning Board, but then, upon further consideration shortly thereafter, decided to reconsider this decision and instead vote on the appeal itself, which ultimately resulted in a 2-2 tie. After a lengthy discussion on what happens with a gridlock vote, the Board of Appeal agreed to stay their decision on the appeal until at least March 10, 2022 pending legal council in closed session and review of relevant case law. And this is where the process currently stands.
If it is determined that a fifth member is needed for the Appeal Board to make a decision, then the Board must wait for the Howard County Council to nominate and approve a resident to sit on the Board of Appeals, a process that could take a couple months. Presumably, that new member would be afforded an opportunity to review the case history and ultimately be responsible for casting the deciding vote. Keep in mind that the possibility exists that whatever decision the Board of Appeals ultimately makes can be contested in Howard County Circuit Court.
The outcome of the Lakeview case could set for a precedent for future development on Broken Land Parkway. Already, the owners of the Woodmere office complex adjacent to Lakeview at the intersection of BLP and Cradlerock Way have submitted an SDP of their own to build a similarly styled retail building containing a fast-food drive-thru on the parking lot of their property. If Lakeview is approved, it seems likely that Woodmere would be approved as well.
First, it should be noted that based on my review from watching the various public meetings linked above, it appears that there is general agreement that the site plan for Lakeview retail does abide by the development requirements for this site. So, the legal issue appears to hinge on whether the planning board has authority to deny a SDP that is compliant with the site's FDP. Whether one likes or dislikes this type of retail development may be largely irrelevant.
Regular readers of my blog know that I am a proponent for mixed-use walkable bikeable development that help to reduce car-dependency, provide new housing opportunities, and bring community together in shared common spaces to enjoy new amenities. I believe that a car-centric fast-food drive-thru and retail strip mall accomplishes none of these things. I won't go so far as to say that I am adamantly opposed to this project. A restaurant at this site would serve the office workers at Lakeview and add a nearby food option for residents out enjoying Lake Elkhorn, even though the proposed location for the retail building (as close to Broken Land Parkway as permitted by the FDP [50 feet]) is clearly designed predominantly with commuters in mind.
The argument that the aesthetics of a six-lane divided roadway must be protected doesn't quite land with me. I am, however, a proponent of ensuring the village center concept remains relevant for decades to come. Adding even more competition like highly visible retail offerings detract from the ability of village centers, which are already at a disadvantage given their tucked-away locations, to attract retailers and patrons. The big box stores, gas stations, strip malls, and drive-thrus that are plentiful in the Snowden River and Dobbin corridors already make these parts of Columbia indistinguishable from sprawl that litters many other suburban areas in America. I prefer we concentrate new retail development with urban-style density as part of a bold vision for Columbia's future.