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The group created to revitalize the Great Mills Road corridor is warning St. Mary’s County land use staff that the proposed update of the development plan for the Lexington Park area would only hurt the downtown if it proceeds as is. A major landowner there agreed.
The Community Development Corp. wrote that in the proposed plan, restaurants and other existing uses would not be permitted just outside Gate 2 of Patuxent River Naval Air Station if Navy guidelines about land use underneath its airspace were incorporated into the county’s zoning ordinance.
For decades, St. Mary’s County has sought a balance between encouraging Lexington Park to redevelop, while trying to avoid encroaching on Pax River’s missions by crowding commercial and residential activity nearby. The county does this by limiting development in what is called the Air Installation Compatible Use Zone — AICUZ.
The Navy has no zoning authority over St. Mary’s County and the county has no zoning authority over Pax River. But in 1977, St. Mary’s County became the first community in the nation to adopt a local AICUZ.
In recent years, millions of dollars have been spent in public infrastructure to improve roads, build parks and new public facilities to attract private investment in Lexington Park. A school, a library and the entire Lexington Manor neighborhood were removed from the AICUZ near the Navy base gates.
However, in commenting on the latest update for the Lexington Park Development District plan, the Community Development Corp. wrote, “The staff draft now proposes that, over time ... that ‘normally incompatible’ but permitted uses (in the AICUZ) such as full-service restaurants be eliminated along with cultural activities and other amenities we’ve come to enjoy in the downtown.”
“There’s no incentive for anyone to redevelop that property,” Bill Higgs, chairman of the Community Development Corp., said in an interview.
Applying the 2009 Navy guidelines to the zoning ordinance would limit growth in the AICUZ to 50 people per acre, not per building, he said.
That would supersede the fire marshal’s and health department’s people-per-building limitations and “enforcement would create a considerable, if not laughable, challenge for county officials who must often work with different owners whose properties share the same acre,” the Community Development Corp. wrote.
Activities like Juneteenth or other public events in Lexington Park near Gate 2 wouldn’t be permitted under such provisions, Higgs said. “You can’t have a concert with more than 50 people. Once those guidelines are in the ordinance, there’s no flexibility,” he said.
“A market-driven revitalization of the downtown will not and cannot be achieved under the terms of the staff draft of the Lexington Park development District Master Plan,” the Community Development Corp. wrote.
“The plan is running counter-intuitive,” Higgs said. “What are we going to do with these areas right here?
“You’re going to see more deterioration of these existing buildings,” he said, because if they’re torn down, the property would lose development rights to replace them.
The Patuxent Development Co. owns Millison Plaza, which is in the AICUZ, and planners have called for private reinvestment there. In a letter to the St. Mary’s County Planning Commission, the company’s attorney wrote there has “been no claim that maintaining the current commercial development on the property contravenes AICUZ policy or constitutes an encroachment.”
In addition, “While the county may have a desire to revitalize the downtown and express a certain vision for Lexington Park, bootstrapping such goals on AICUZ concerns is neither warranted nor supportable,” wrote attorney Sang Oh.
Phil Shire, director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Land Use and Growth Management, said “the list of uses might be incorporated into the zoning ordinance eventually. We don’t want standards that oppose the guidelines in the regulations.”
Noise level contours around the Navy base will also need to be drawn on county zoning maps to mitigate aircraft noise through building construction measures, he said. “As far as the other guidelines, I leave that to the planning commission and [the county commissioners] to decide,” he said.
For decades, new commercial development has marched north up Route 235 from Great Mills Road, where large parcels of land were available and zoning was accommodating. “The county must either adopt more aggressive approaches to guiding growth in the [Lexington Park] Development District or accept the continued investment of public resources to tackle the economic unraveling of communities left in the wake of the largely laissez-faire approach used to date,” the Community Development Corp. wrote.
The corporation asks that the zoning ordinance keep the list of currently permitted uses in the AICUZ and that the county get full credit for reducing the overall density in the zone through its relocation, acquisition and preservation projects.
One of those properties acquired by St. Mary’s County government was 84 acres, the World War II-era neighborhood of Lexington Manor, known as the Flattops. The southern 50 acres of that site are now parkland.
The Community Development Corp., before the recession hit in 2008, proposed a new development on the northern 34 acres to provide workspace and amenities for the workers of Patuxent River.
Now the Community Development Corp. recommends the county further reduce the density under the AICUZ “by forgoing all but the most minimal commercial development” on those 34 acres. An employment campus there couldn’t have the density needed to be financed and sustained, the group said.