On May 7, when the Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals issued its resolution approving the controversial Hamilton Royal Farms project – following months of community opposition and a raucous April 2 hearing – their greenlight came with a condition.
An upgrade of the famously confusing intersection at the northeast Baltimore site, including realignment of Glenmore Avenue at Harford Road, had to be completed by the city.
But that contingency dropped away in a second resolution, described as a “corrected copy,” on June 2. The second approval said only that the strip of city-owned land needed for the realignment had to be donated.
The second resolution was approved without any new public hearing and was a violation of the Maryland Open Meetings Act and state land use laws, a coalition of community groups contend in an appeal filed in Baltimore Circuit Court on July 25.
“We are surprised by how brazenly they acted,” said Roop Vijayan, a leader of the opposition who lives near the office building (owned by the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 37) where the gas station and convenience store has been proposed.
The lawyer for the community groups, John C. Murphy, sketched out a worse-case scenario should the project go forward without a guarantee that the intersection will be fixed.
“Given the $400,000 price tab for this re‐alignment, which may be a far too low estimate given the fact that the re‐alignment has not actually been designed, it is entirely possible that this re‐alignment will never occur,” he wrote to the Circuit Court.
Allegations of an Ex-Parte Communication
Another aspect of the appeal by the GlenHam BelHar Community Association and nearby groups is their contention that the scaled-back resolution came about because of a phone call by Royal Farms’ attorneys to the BMZA.
Vijayan, in a phone interview with The Brew, said that he had contacted the BMZA to ask about the issuance of a second resolution and was told by a staffer that it happened because Royal Farms had called to complain about the first one.
“I have no comment,” said Stanley S. Fine, Royal Farms’ attorney, when asked whether he had placed a call complaining to the BMZA. Fine noted that the company’s legal response has not yet been filed with the court. “Our answer to all this will be there,” he said.
Also declining to comment was city attorney Sandra R. Gutman, who represents the BMZA. (The case is scheduled to be heard in Circuit Court on September 26.)
Murphy acknowledged that the allegation of intervention is hearsay at this point, but observed “the decision didn’t come out of thin air.”
“The fact remains that this [second] resolution made substantial changes and the public was never given the opportunity in an open meeting to respond to them,” Murphy told The Brew. “This business of calling up the board after the hearing and having them just issue something so different – that’s just legally wrong.”
Murphy is also arguing that the community’s Circuit Court appeal of the initial May 7 resolution invalidates, as a matter of law, the BMZA’s second resolution.
Community Protests to Continue
Other aspects of the appeal are more in line with the issues that have rallied opposition to the proposal for months. Murphy argues that the BMZA erred in its finding that the project – a 24-hour, 12-gas pump convenience store – should get a conditional use permit.
“It’s incompatible,” he said, “the ig story here is that this is a neighborhood with a lot of young families and a lot of good things happening in the retail corridor and they don’t like this.”
The groups representing all of the adjacent neighborhoods – GlenHam/BelHar, Hamilton Hills, Lauraville, Westfield and Waltherson – have voted to oppose the project. They’ve been picketing the site at or near 5901 Harford Road since their BMZA defeat and raising funds for a legal battle.
They argue that the store will increase traffic congestion and decrease safety, noting that the site is across the street from a city library branch and near schools and a residential neighborhood.
Vijayan said the groups plan to continue their protests on the weekends and will be at the Greater Lauraville Fair on Sept. 28.