A plan to add housing at the Melford business park has come under fire by critics, who say there hasn’t been enough public input or study of the plan’s impact on Bowie infrastructure.
Currently, only commercial development is allowed at the site, located near U.S. routes 50 and 301, due to an agreement between the Bowie City Council and Melford’s developer, St. John Properties. However, the developer has requested to add housing due to lagging business interest, and the city plans to meet March 4 to consider altering the agreement.
In the run up to the vote, critics charge the city has yet to have a stakeholders meeting, as it would with zoning matters, in which residents are able to voice their opinions.
“I don’t understand the hurry,” said Martha Ainsworth, executive secretary of the Sherwood Manor Civic Association, which represents a neighborhood just outside Bowie city limits that abuts Melford. “Why would we want to rush this through? Why would we want to make up our minds between now and March?”
A stakeholders meeting on the Melford plan isn’t required under Bowie’s rules as the city isn’t considering a rezoning but a change to existing agreements, known as covenants, on the site, said Una Cooper, a city spokeswoman.
Mike McArdle of Bowie, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2000, said that although it isn’t required under the city charter, officials should still hold a meeting.
“It might be legally permissible but it’s certainly not a way to build consensus on something this massive to the city’s economic development plan,” he said.
City officials contend there have been two council meetings during which the public could comment on the issue and the upcoming March meeting will offer a third opportunity.
“When people suggest people are making back-room deals, that’s absolutely untrue,” Bowie Mayor G. Frederick Robinson said.
During a Sept. 18 meeting, the council authorized city staff to start looking at mixed-use development ideas with the developer. In a Jan. 7 meeting, the council voted 6-to-1 to move forward with a plan to allow housing, with Councilman Dennis Brady (At Large) the sole dissenting voice.
The speed with which the council is moving forward is frustrating, Brady said.
“We strive to put the bar as high as possible,” he said. “On this, we’ve seem to have put it on the ground so people can step over it.”
A study commissioned by St. John Properties found that Melford was at about 62 percent occupancy as of fall 2012, down from 66 percent in 2011 and below the county-occupancy average of about 79 percent. Currently, there is 1.5 million square feet office space at Melford, but at full build out, the project is expected to be 4.8 million square feet.
Some residents, including Brady, contend the city should have its own study on the viability of the original business park vision. They also say the city has failed to analyze the impact of adding about 2,500 new housing units to the city, effectively increasing the number of homes in Bowie by about 10 percent.
The city should examine the impact on traffic, police staffing, trash pickup and other city services prior to moving forward, McArdle said.
“You’ve got any number of structural factors that would need to be aligned from a community planning aspect,” he said.
Such discussion will take place as St. John Properties develops its vision of a Melford Village; however, the developer needs the covenant change to justify the expense of developing plans for the site, Robinson said.
“All of these questions will be addressed,” he said.