What Does County’s Route 589 Rezoning Mean? More Commercial Development Near Casino Most Likely

What Does County’s Route 589 Rezoning Mean? More Commercial Development Near Casino Most Likely
Rather than rezone the entire area in red, the County Commissioners approved in a 5-2 vote to rezone to commercial the parcels directly along Route 589 in blue. Submitted Photo

SNOW HILL – Route 589 could see an increase in commercial development following a decision by county leaders to rezone a section of properties near Ocean Downs Casino.

The Worcester County Commissioners on Tuesday voted 5-2 to rezone 14 properties along McAllister Road and Route 589 to C-2 commercial. Though the majority of the properties have been used residentially, proponents of the rezoning argued that the neighborhood was not what it was when those homes were built.

“They’re sitting right across from the casino,” local real estate agent Jim Motsko said. “That changed everything.”

The commissioners hosted a public hearing Dec. 18 to consider a proposed sectional rezoning of more than a dozen properties along McAllister Road and Route 589. The concept of a sectional rezoning arose after five individual property owners in that area asked to have their properties changed from E-1 estate to C-2 commercial. Because of the multiple requests, the commissioners agreed to permit the Worcester County Planning Commission to explore a rezoning of that entire area.

Though the commission came back with a recommendation not to rezone that section of land, after citing traffic concerns and pointing out that there was commercial property already in the area, the county commissioners were still required to host a public hearing on the issue before they made any decision. At the hearing Tuesday, Mark Cropper, the attorney representing the five property owners who initially requested commercial zoning, argued in support of a reclassification of the properties. He pointed out that his clients’ properties were within the neighborhood defined in two previous commercial rezoning cases for properties farther north along Route 589.  Though neighbors appealed the commissioners’ 2012 decision to rezone property owned by Burbage Melson Inc., the Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld the rezoning.

“The Court of Special Appeals found the definition of neighborhood in that case to be appropriate and supported by the facts,” Cropper said.

He introduced Hugh Cropper, the attorney who represented the property owner in that case. Hugh Cropper outlined the changes in the neighborhood, which included the addition of the 24-hour casino to the Ocean Downs property. Prior to the addition of slot machines, Ocean Downs was a seasonal property, busy only during the summer’s live harness racing meet. Hugh Cropper said development of the casino had had a major impact on the area.

“There’s no question it now has a commercial character,” he said.

Mark Cropper said no road improvements had been required when the Burbage Melson property, about a mile north of those in question, had been rezoned. He pointed out that Route 589 in front of his clients’ properties had already been widened and included a traffic signal.

He added that the commercial zoning his clients wanted was more in keeping with the county’s comprehensive plan than the existing estate zoning, which will eventually be eliminated.

Hugh Cropper agreed and said estate zoning had only ever been appropriate for places like South Point and Bishopville.

“I think we all know the estate zone is antiquated,” he said. “It’s not smart growth.”

Motsko told the commissioners he was a longtime local realtor who’d been approached by one of Mark Cropper’s clients about selling a Route 589 property eight years ago. He’s been trying to sell it ever since.

“You’d have to give it away almost,” he said.

He added that he’d had tons of calls but no one wanted an estate-zoned property across from the casino.

“I personally wouldn’t want to live there with the casino across the street,” he said.

Cropper introduced several of his clients, all of whom stated that they wanted to see their properties rezoned. Property owner Steve Machen said he’d asked the county to adjust his zoning back in 2006 when the county’s last comprehensive plan was drafted.

Cropper closed his argument by reminding the commissioners that his clients’ properties were significantly closer to the casino than the properties they’d rezoned to commercial back in 2012, citing the change in the neighborhood.

“The logic falls that if the county commissioners found it appropriate to rezone those properties farther from the casino, those properties more directly impacted are even more deserving of a change in zoning classification,” he said.

He added that the county’s comprehensive plan in 2006 had clearly called for the elimination of estate zoning.

“There is no doubt the elimination of the estate zone was to happen and it was supposed to have occurred before now,” he said. “It hasn’t. That’s 12 years ago and nothing has changed…How long should these property owners have to wait to have the zoning of their properties reflect the change that has occurred in their neighborhood?”

Before the public hearing was closed, Glen Riddle resident Don Giancoli spoke against the proposed rezonings. He said he objected to the transitive nature of the argument the attorneys had made. He said the commissioners would likely receive more rezoning requests if they approved any this week, as others were “going to be able to make the same argument that the nature of my property has changed because now I’m next to commercial property.”

Giancoli said he was also bothered by claims that the property owners couldn’t sell their land with its current zoning.

“Well everybody can sell their property,” he said. “They can’t sell their property necessarily for what they’d like to sell it for.”

Giancoli also stressed that Route 589 was already inundated with traffic and argued that a traffic study should be done before any zoning changes were made.

Attorney Steve Rakow, representing Ocean Downs Casino, told the commissioners he also objected to the proposed rezoning. He said his client wanted the county to wait and consider any potential changes during the next comprehensive plan review.

Rakow cited three reasons for the casino’s objection to the proposal.

“First and foremost there’s sufficient existing commercial property in the area that is either underutilized or unutilized that will be sufficient for commercial development in and around that area,” he said.

He said there was also the issue of wastewater to consider.

“The casino went to a great expense to tap into the Ocean Pines Wastewater Treatment Plant,” he said. “There is no intent of my client to offer up any access to their wastewater services at this time.”

Rakow said the casino’s final concern was, as Giancoli had mentioned, Route 589 traffic. He said no changes to zoning classifications should be made before a traffic study was conducted.

“It doesn’t take a traffic engineer to tell you the traffic is horrendous,” Rakow said. “A case in point, on the northwest end, how PRMC got away with building what they have built and are building, without widening the road up there, is going to create significant increases in traffic all along 589 if it hasn’t already. I would submit that the widening of the road in front of the casino and across from these properties seeking rezoning was done, again, at the expense of the Ocean Downs Casino. That should be a requirement all up and down 589, including making the Turville Creek bridge a four lane bridge, and four lane highway all the way up and down 589 before any further commercial development is approved and before any changes to zoning occur.”

When asked to comment on the issue of wastewater, county staff said commercial development on the parcels being considered would have to be served by on site systems. Mark Cropper said his clients were aware of that.

“That’s going to limit the uses that can go on those properties,” he said.

County Attorney Maureen Howarth told the commissioners she wanted to clarify Cropper’s comments regarding the 2012 rezoning case that had gone to the Court of Special Appeals. She said the court had decided not to “substitute its judgement in place of the county commissioners” on the definition of neighborhood in that case and had thus affirmed the commissioners’ decision.

“The court didn’t say ‘that definition is correct,’” Howarth said.

Commissioner Jim Bunting said he thought that if the commissioners rezoned the properties belonging to Cropper’s five clients they should rezone all the properties along Route 589 and McAllister Road. He questioned, however, the need to rezone any properties along Griffin Road. He made a motion to approve the sectional rezoning to C-2 but to remove the properties not directly fronting McAllister or Route 589.

Commissioner Chip Bertino said he wouldn’t support the rezoning.

“I may not choose to live in that area but certainly those folks have chosen to live in that area,” Bertino said.

He added that by rezoning more than just the parcels owned by Cropper’s clients, those property owners would then have nonconforming lots and would have to get board of zoning appeals approval for any changes to their homes.

“I have a hard time with that,” he said. “The second thing is I have a hard time with the fact that the infrastructure’s not there yet.”

The commissioners voted 5-2, with Bertino and Commissioner Josh Nordstrom opposed, to approve the sectional rezoning as outlined by Bunting.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.