Planning Commission Holds Off Pines Rezoning Call

SNOW HILL — The Worcester County Planning Commission decided to delay a vote earlier this month on a re-zoning request to change the designation of a large property near Ocean Pines from agricultural to commercial.

While the change is being endorsed by a number of engineers, land planners and even Atlantic General Hospital (AGH) CEO Michael Franklin, there is some pushback from residents in the area who worry about what commercial zoning could mean near their neighborhood, especially with traffic.

“I think it’s a very large complex to add to the [Route] 589 mix,” said Ocean Pines resident Carol Fishel.

A property owner on King Richard Rd. in Ocean Pines, Fishel expressed concern that the medical complex that is proposed for the nearby site could swamp her already stressed road with congestion.

Attorney Hugh Cropper, who represented Burbage/Melson Inc, the owners of the currently A-1 zoned property, came prepared for congestion worries. He called Betty Tustin, a traffic engineer, as a witness. Tustin recently conducted a traffic survey on the area and determined that installing an 80,000-square-foot medical complex, as the developers are considering, would have no noticeable effect on congestion levels, which should remain at a level C traffic rating.

If developer Jack Burbage decided to build a 132,000-square-foot complex, an option he is also considering, Tustin explained that the traffic rating would remain the same with small road improvements, such as installing a double-left lane at the nearby intersection of Manklin Creek.

Cropper asked Tustin if the numbers she used for the study were “worst case scenario” as far as traffic. She agreed that they were.

Fishel, however, was skeptical, saying, “The traffic study doesn’t do anything for me.”

Fishel argued that the numbers Tustin observed are indicative of the current recession and that traffic could explode as the economy improves. She also anticipates table games eventually making their way to the Casino at Ocean Downs o, which would likely further pressure on Route 589.

Fishel worried that her street in particular would be overloaded by the project, especially if a proposed connection for the complex to King Richard Rd. was eventually approved.

Perhaps Fishel’s biggest fear was that even though Burbage is proposing the construction of a medical complex on his property, if the zoning is changed to commercial, he won’t be obligated to follow through with that and could legally build any commercial structure he would like..

Burbage himself made an impassioned plea to the commission to allow him to move forward with the project.

“It’s like my field of dreams,” he said. “You build it and they will come.”

Burbage admitted that he couldn’t guarantee that the site would become a medical complex once zoning went through but promised that medical was his hope and current goal.

“It could be a beautiful medical campus,” he told the commissioners. “It’s one of the few industries that is [expanding].”

Burbage also outlined the jobs such a project could bring to the area, especially “green, environmental jobs.” Between the construction work and the permanent medical positions at the complex, Burbage estimated that more than 300 jobs might be created if he’s given a green light.

“I plead with you to approve this to give people in this community their field of dreams,” he said.

But as far as Fishel was concerned, she’d prefer that the location simply be kept a field and remain zoned for agriculture. She claimed to have the support of several neighbors and underlined the efforts of Linda Oehl, a Pines resident who has lead the charge against the re-zoning when it was first mentioned to the Ocean Pines Association. Fishel expects that when the re-zoning goes to a public hearing in front of the County Commissioners, a number of Pines residents will speak out against it.

Whether the change will have the support of the Planning Commission is still undetermined, however.

Cropper’s case for making a change came from several different angles. He pointed out the change in the neighborhood, especially with the addition of slots at the casino last January.

“Ocean Downs went from $1 million [in value] to $19 million,” said engineer John Salm, a witness on behalf of Cropper.

There was also a mistake made with the original A-1 zoning, according to Cropper, who argued that the designation didn’t fit in with the rest of the zoning map for the area.

Finally, changing from an A-1 to C-2 zoning would carry in inarguable benefit for Worcester in terms of tax revenue and jobs, according to Cropper.

After being confronted by Fishel’s doubts and Cropper’s parade of witnesses, the Planning Commission decided to hold off on giving a recommendation until their next meeting.

“We need to digest your notes,” said Planning Commissioner Wayne Hartman.

Whether the proposal receives a favorable or unfavorable recommendation from the commission, it will eventually come up before the County Commissioners for a public hearing.