Sugarloaf Mountain tranquility threatened again: HPC hearing on August 12th

Below is a blog entry from Doug Kaplan and an Action Alert from our friends at the Montgomery Countryside Alliance regarding the property at 2220 Thurston Road, near Sugarloaf Mountain.


Will Sugarloaf Mountain and its surrounding area remain a tranquil setting where neighbors and visitors from all over the Washington DC area can continue to enjoy the sounds of birds and leaves blowing in the wind; a place where one can hike, bicycle, ride their horse, play a game of golf, relax with a picnic on Sugarloaf Mountain?

The development of what would be the largest event venue in the area — at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain — would destroy the character of our neighborhood.

Right now, that is a real possibility. But with active citizen engagement on the issue, it can be stopped.

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Tourism is among the fastest growing economic activities of southern Frederick and northern Montgomery County. At least 250,000 weekend hikers, bikers and motorists visit Sugarloaf Mountain every year. This mountain and it’s forest shares a long border with the applicant’s property, and some of the hiking and equestrian trails used by the public run very close to the proposed venue. The sound from the proposed events would negatively affect the tranquility of these outdoor activities and diminish the public demand for them, to the economic detriment of the owners and our region.

Last summer, Elm Tree Properties attempted unsuccessfully to obtain approval for one of the largest shooting range complexes in the United States. They are now seeking approval for a large event venue. Their application is worded to allow them to host events with outside amplified sound.

Events could occur anytime from early morning until late into the evening.

The nature and intensity of the proposed operation is not in harmony with the neighborhood and will negatively affect the residents, existing businesses, property values, real estate sales and property tax income for the county.

The proposed event venue site is situated in a natural echo chamber. Sounds from Thurston Road and along the Bennett’s Creek are amplified by the natural contour of the mountain behind it. A major issue is the amount of noise that would be generated by amplified outdoor sound. This has tremendous negative effects on the people who live in our area and those who enjoy the tranquility of Sugarloaf Mountain and ride on the many trails in our area.

Traffic increases from the proposed operation would be detrimental to safety on the local roads, especially during the school year. The main access road, Thurston Road, is a winding, hilly, scenic road with a narrow bridge over Little Bennett Creek. Accidents along Thurston road are likely if vehicles come around a bend with stopped cars. Also intoxicated individuals leaving the property would pose an extreme danger to others on this unforgiving road.

There are many small farms in the area that support themselves by boarding horses and/or giving lessons or hosting trail rides. Two of the larger enterprises, Saddleview Ranch and Bennett’s Creek Farm, also provide training from 4H to Olympic level in horse riding and jumping. The Ranch has about 30 horses in residence and holds monthly Horse Shows in season. How many riders will avoid the Sugarloaf Mountain area and take their business to other areas that are peaceful and do not have constant loud blasting music.

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CLOSED DOOR ISSUE

On April 23, 2015 a hearing was held by the Frederick County Board of Zoning Appeals on Elm Tree Properties’ application for a Special Exception to host an event venue at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain.

Board members failed to follow the requirements of the Maryland Open Meeting Act. In the middle of discussing proposed restrictions suggested by the opposition, many of which were accepted by the Applicant, the Board took a break at the suggestion of the County Attorney. A member of the Board can be heard stating (2:40:23 into the proceedings), “We need to discuss it and come to a decision.” These words were spoken very softly and can only be heard with substantial amplification.

When they resumed the proceeding, the Chairman stated, “We have had a little more discussion and are there any other comments we want to address?” With none given, Mr. Greenwell asked if there was anyone who wanted to make a motion. A motion to approve the application was made with only the restrictions suggested in the Staff Report.

The change in the proceedings was abrupt and only made sense if there had been discussion outside the public view. During the proceedings, the Board also failed to follow their own rules when they failed to provide an opportunity for cross examination of the Applicant’s witnesses. Anyone wanting to draw their own opinion should listen to the last fifteen minutes of the hearing, which is 2 ½ hours into the proceedings. The hearing can be found on the County website.

I raised this issue at a County Council hearing, discussed this matter with its President, and contacted the County Executive’s office. Unfortunately, not a single person expressed concern for the behavior of the Board. The opinion seemed to be that the Special Exception would have been approved, therefore, no problem. While that is true, incorporating the restrictions that were agreed to before the break would have made the approval somewhat less intrusive on the community invaded by the proposed event venue and even more importantly – they broke the law! Left with no other options, I have filed a complaint with the Maryland Open Meeting Compliance Board. Currently we are awaiting a response to the Compliance Board by the Board of Zoning Appeals.

It had been my hope that after the failure of the previous Commissioners to hold themselves to high ethical standards, the current Council and Executive would assure that this type of behavior would not be permitted under their leadership. While I have been encouraged with the obvious improvement over the previous administration and understand that the new Charter and other issues impact their time and resources, I feel this is a significant symptom of the cancer that has consumed our politics here in the county and additional efforts must be made to restore citizen trust in our County government.

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CURRENT STATUS

The property is located in a Resource Conservation (RC) Zone. Normally an event venue would not be allowed to operate in an RC Zone; however, an exception is made if they obtain a listing on the Frederick County Register of Historic Properties. The County established a process for approval which includes five steps.

March 4th without any opposition testimony, the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) by a 4 to 3 vote, approved a Determination of Eligibility (step 1). The Board of Zoning Appeals on April 23rd unanimously approved a Special Exception after meeting illegally behind closed doors (step 2). The HPC held a hearing on July 1st to decide if they should recommend to the County Council they list the property on the County Register (step 3).

There was substantial citizen opposition at the hearing. The Applicant’s attorney raised an issue in the proceedings. The center of the controversy was whether the proceedings of the first and last nights’ hearing were one continuous proceeding or if the process was a bifurcated process; thus,  allowing each member to vote their conscious at last night’s hearing even if the result would be different from the first hearing on eligibility. As there was no County attorney present, the Commission members made a decision to ask for a legal opinion.

Moving forward the HPC will hold a hearing on August 12th. They should make a decision whether or not to recommend to the Council that they approve the listing of the property on the Frederick County Register of Historic Properties. If the Commission does not recommend a listing, then the only recourse the Applicant has is to take this matter to court. If a positive recommendation occurs, then the following steps must occur for final approval. Obtain County Council approval for a listing on the County Register of Historic Properties (step 4) and Planning Commission Approval for their site plan (step 5).

Please visit the Preserve Sugarloaf Mountain page on Facebook for further information.


And…from the Montgomery Countryside Alliance:

Thurston Road Proposal Threatens Sugarloaf Country…Again. Hearing Aug. 12

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The owners of the 2220 Thurston Rd property (in Frederick County) are seeking a historic designation for their 260 acre property so they can proceed with plans to operate a large event venue – a use that is prohibited in the Resource Conservation zone where the property lies among farms, forests and of course the Mountain. If Frederick County’s Historic Preservation Commission does find the drastically renovated structures on the property “historic,” many of the uses allowed under the new designation, such as a large event venue, may bypass the intended protections of Resource Conservation zoning and threaten the very resources the zone is meant to conserve.

Take Action:

1) Attend the Historic Preservation Commission Hearing – Wednesday, August 12th at 7:00 p.m, Winchester Hall, 12 East Church Street, Frederick

2) Send your concerns by email to Frederick County Planner Dennis Superczynski: dSuperczynski@frederickcountymd.gov by August 10. Sample points follow, please make them your own:

• The Resource Conservation zoning on this area is critical to protect not just the land itself but the other less tangible resources of rural roads and quiet surroundings.

• This property abuts Montgomery County’s Ag Reserve and there is concern that more permissive zoning would have an impact on the working farms just over the county line.

• Designating a property as historic must be balanced with keeping our presently exiting resources preserved for future generations. The proximity of this property to historic battlefields, working farms and Sugarloaf mountain needs to be carefully considered in any potential zoning change. Frederick County has often considered more protective zoning for this area to protect these natural and historic resources. More permissive zoning- even to protect our historic buildings, may inadvertently allow incompatible land uses – a change which can’t be undone.
Background

You may remember a year ago this month when a proposal to turn this property into a massive shooting range with sniper tower and parking for hundreds was drawing massive crowds of concerned neighbors and Sugarloaf allies. The range proposal ended when the owners, the Valois family, capitulated to opposition at the hearing, saying they now understood the unique landscape of the mountain and surrounding farms was incompatible with their plans and wanted to be good neighbors.

While the noise created by a large event venue may not rise to the din of a shooting range, community members are rightfully concerned about the noise and traffic that would be associated with such a facility. As Sugarloaf Alliance (the lead organization on this issue) has pointed out “the natural contour of the mountain and valley produces significant echoing of any noise generated and the narrow, winding, hilly character of Thurston Road becomes more dangerous with increased traffic.”

Currently, this parcel is zoned Resource Conservation – while Frederick County lacks the more stringent zoning of Montgomery’s Ag Reserve, this part of Thurston Road sits in an area that open space advocates have identified as needing more protective zoning – specifically because of the Mountain, working farms, historic battlefields and rural character of the area.

This week’s Commission hearing is the first step in the property achieving a zoning change that would permit an event venue.

Please stay tuned.


Montgomery Countryside Alliance on the web

Montgomery Countryside Alliance on Facebook

Montgomery Countryside Alliance on Facebook

NOTE the Sugarloaf Alliance page on Facebook (above) has not been kept up to date, but as noted above, you can get additional information about this issue and the process here:

Preserve Sugarloaf Mountain on Facebook