—– By: Ann Costantino —–
Middletown, Maryland – A Frederick County advocacy group is collecting signatures to force its municipality’s officials to slow a 148-home Memar Corporation development project long enough to hear from concerned residents who say government officials are bypassing a process which allows for the consideration of community input.
The advocacy group wants the town to slow down and allow the public to be heard.
“We need 722 signatures by May 23rd 2018 to be able to VOTE on the Annexation. If we get 722 signatures the Resolution 18-01 Annexation will go onto the next general election ballot. If we don’t get enough signatures the Resolution 18-01 Annexation goes to County Planning commission and then to County Council, ” the Concerned Citizens of Middletown MD stated in an official statement on their Facebook page. “So we encourage EVERYONE in Middletown and around the County to help us get those signatures so we can have a vote!”
The group says that 722 signatures are needed by this Wednesday for the community to have a voice about a project members don’t want and which will allow for the homes to be built along Coblentz Road and Main Street in the Frederick County community. The reason that precisely 722 signatures are needed is because Middletown’s charter requires that 20 percent of the town’s 3,608 registered voters request a referendum in order for an issue to appear on a ballot.
When the majority of the town’s commissioners voted to approve Memar’s annex this past March, they allowed the developer’s property – which sat outside the town’s border – to join the town’s municipality, a government jurisdiction which operates independently within Frederick County. The approved annex will permit the developer to make use of the town’s established services for its development project – such as water and sewer – as well as allow for a zoning upgrade, all without having to deal with the bureaucracy and zoning limitations the developer would have encountered under Frederick County government’s jurisdiction.
In 2004, Farhad Memarsedeghi, the landowner and developer who is also the chair of Frederick County Bank, filed a petition to annex his land into the town of Middletown, Maryland. But until March, Memarsedeghi’s attempts had failed.
The developer had been trying to get his rural and undeveloped land to join the town of Middletown – a municipality within Frederick County with a population of roughly 4,460 — which would allow for water and sewer services to be provided for his planned development of almost 150 houses on his roughly 94-acre property.
Depending on the number of residents who occupy the 148 homes, the planned development could increase Middletown’s population by more than five percent.
In an about face, a majority of Middletown’s commissioners passed a resolution to join the 94 acres of the Frederick County agricultural land into the town of Middletown in order to allow developer, Memar Corp., to build a new community for active adults who are 55 years of age or older – a need Middletown officials say is great. The commissioners did not respond to an opportunity to comment on the matter.
But some residents question the need and are concerned about the impact 148 new homes and additional drivers will have on their community. They fear that county government officials are bypassing a proper process to make way for the private development project.
Instead, they say, those officials have eliminated the chance for a normal part of the process: a review of the development plans and the recently approved annexation.
A somewhat similar situation occurred in Baltimore County last year in which 30 protected trees were removed in advance of a scheduled development input meeting at the direction of Baltimore County administrative officer, Fred Homan.
The move bypassed forest conservation laws as well as a legislative order that protected the trees as a condition of a modification to the zoning for a then-proposed gas station on a property not zoned for gas stations. The trees’ removal also served to bypass public input into details about the development plan’s impact on the trees. When the county removed the trees, they did so in advance of the public meeting; and by removing the trees, the project’s only impediment was also removed. The move benefited Towson-based developer and generous campaign contributor, Caves Valley Partners.
In Middletown, a development review meeting to discuss the Memar Corp. development project will also be bypassed, according to area resident and advocate, Jane Weir; and the annexation of the 94-acre property, according to Weir, will apparently also change a zoning classification which will also favor the developer.
Weir said Middletown’s County Planning director told her that the annexation of 94 acres of farmland in Frederick County will “automatically change” the agricultural (AG) zoning classification to R20 – or medium density zoning. The move to upzone the property, Weir said, would occur without a public hearing since the town’s administrator, Drew Bowen, has chosen not to arrange an “Express Review of the project by County Planning Department.”
Weir and other advocates have also fought Frederick County officials over what is described as the Downtown Frederick Marriott Hotel “boondoggle,” a planned hotel development project that is using $17.5 million in taxpayer money to assist with developer Plamondon’s $80.2 million development project.
Coincidentally, Frederick County’s lead financial advisor on the project, Anirban Basu of Sage Policy Group, used the Frederick Marriott project as an example for Baltimore County when he advised county officials in December on using taxpayer dollars to forward fund $43 million for a Caves Valley’s and Greenberg Gibbons’ development project called Towson Row.
Basu, who is also the chair of the Maryland Economic Development Commission, referenced the Frederick project and told Baltimore County councilmembers prior to their vote on the $43 million that “public participation (money) provides the public sector the opportunity, as representatives of the people, to participate in the project and help shape the project.”
But the advice the majority of the Baltimore County Council would heed – when they voted to approve the public financing for the private development project – was a move that angered Towson residents and has become a central topic for candidates during the county’s political debates this election season.
On the heels of Baltimore County’s grants to developers, the Frederick Marriott project is still unfolding amid sustained community resistance to the suitability of a hotel and conference center in the middle of historic Frederick, as well as the scale of the development and the public financing component. Unlike Baltimore County, however, The Baltimore Post has not found a significant trail of campaign contributions between the developer and Frederick County officials.
Meanwhile, in Middletown, residents see their municipality’s officials also siding with the desires of a developer, instead of hearing the concerns of the communities that will be impacted by a new development project of this scale. The decision also fans the fears of shrinking agricultural land in Frederick County.
In response, some Middletown residents mobilized and have organized a referendum which will force the desired annexation of Memarsdeghi’s 94 acres into Middletown’s municipality to appear on an election ballot, giving the public a chance to vote on the annexation of land into their town.
However, in order for the issue to appear for a vote, 722 or more signatures will be needed.
Yet in order to sign the petition, Frederick County voters who live within the Middletown municipal boundary will have to go in person to sign. The petition is also available online, but must be submitted to the county’s Town Hall at 31 West Main Street in Middletown, Md. Additional locations have been set up by area businesses to receive the petitions: Middletown Sportsland, the Fountaindale Exxon on Hollow Road or Fountaindale Auto Center on Green Street.
According to the Middletown municipality’s April meeting minutes, the town’s commissioner, Thomas S. Catania, stated that Middletown officials have worked with developer, Memar Corporation, for over 30 years and that town commissioners have looked carefully into the 94-acre development project.
Moreover, officials stated that it is a response to a need for more senior housing in an area, they say, has a growing demand.
But the Concerned Citizens of Middletown MD say their advocacy efforts are directed squarely at preserving Frederick County’s and, specifically, Middletown’s agricultural land and charm.
“We are not a bunch of ‘hicks, or snobs or haters,” the group said in a memo on its Facebook page. We don’t “blame the people who moved here recently to enjoy the peace and beauty here, even if we came a long time ago. Who wouldn’t want to live here? Its still really nice.”
“But,” the group said, “THIS is at risk of being lost. We do want to STOP it from getting over-developed. We want to preserve our Quality of Life, our quiet beauty, in our rural town, in our wonderful farming community. We want to stop over-development before its too late!”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that if the 722 signatures are achieved, the referendum regarding the annexation would appear on a ballot at November’s general election. Instead, it appears that a special election would be held before November’s election, focused solely on the Middletown/Memar Corp. annexation. Middletown officials did not respond to a request for comment.