Attorneys representing Royal Farms said they heard the community’s concerns surrounding a proposed gas station on Harford Road. So much so, they said at a zoning hearing that stretched almost eight hours on Tuesday, that the company reduced the number of gas pumps to four and is proposing ways to make the traffic on the corridor safer.
It was a different story when community members testified.
The zoning hearing marked a tense restart to an 11-year dispute between Royal Farms and Northeast Baltimore communities. The chain, known for its fried chicken, is asking the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals for permission to build a gas station near a busy intersection at 5901 Harford Road.
Community members who testified at the hearing called the proposal “recipe for disaster” and “a nightmare waiting to happen.”
After two community appeals and pushback, what was then called the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled the board should determine the following: Would a gas station at this location be more harmful here than it would be at any other place along this zoning district?’
Jamar Brown, the attorney representing Royal Farms, pushed residents to back up their traffic and public health concerns with data. On the side of the residents, attorney John Murphy tested engineers brought by the chain on what they knew about the community, the name of organizations, the grades in the local school and the size of the student body.
Before the hearing started, zoning board chair James Fields asked the people in the packed room to “pay close attention to the testimony” so they did not repeat themselves. Still, when he asked those who were there to testify to stand up, more than half of the room rose from their seats.
In the hearing, an official with the Department of Planning recommended the board to reject Royal Farms’ request to build gas pumps, adding that a new gas station would be inconsistent with improvements on pedestrian experience in the corridor.
Brown, the attorney for Royal Farms, agreed that the corridor has seen significant changes. The city reduced the number of lanes on the road in either direction, installed curbs and created new crosswalks and traffic signals.
That all “ameliorates the concerns regarding traffic regarding pedestrian safety that previously existed the last time we were here before the board,” he said.
Following meetings with the community, Brown added, Royal Farms decided to revamp the plan based on their feedback.
He brought in Tom Ruszin, a member of the development team who described the site as “undeveloped and underutilized,” to talk about the changes. Ruszin said the store footprint, which changed from 5,121 to 4,166 square feet, is now “much smaller” than the average store.
Ruszin went on to describe what Royal Farms had to offer to the community, starting with ”obviously” the fried chicken.
The audience broke in laughter. Fields, the chair of the board, reprimanded them.
“We need to hear the testimony,” he said. “Let’s be respectful of that.”
Ruszin said the gas station would bring jobs to the community. Its free refreshment and coffee to first responders, including police officers, would hopefully “encourage that presence” in the neighborhood, Ruszin said. The fuel system would be designed in accordance with state environmental standards.
Murphy, the attorney representing the community, asked Ruszin whether there was a school near the gas station.
“Perhaps,” Ruszin offered.
“You don’t know,” Murphy said.
He asked similar questions to Steve Warfield, a civil engineering consultant brought by Royal Farms.
In his testimony, Warfield said the current vacant land would be turned into a “viable commercial site” and that it would not have an adverse effect beyond those inherently associated with gas stations. He also stressed that Royal Farms is planning to fix sidewalks, install ramps and provide adequate lighting on the site.
Murphy asked Warfield whether he met with the local school’s PTA or people in the library.
“I don’t know,” Warfield said.
Joe Caloggero, an engineer who led traffic analysis for Royal Farms, said his team conducted traffic analysis studies along the intersection.
Even with an increase in traffic, he said, “the intersection is designed to safely accommodate pedestrians if they follow the rules of the road, and they’re crossing within crosswalks.”
Again, Murphy asked Caloggero if he knew how many students the local school had and from what grades. Caloggero said he did not know.
More than five hours into the hearing, Katie Sam, the vice president for the Hamilton Elementary/Middle School’s PTA and one of the residents who testified, said about half of the students walk to and from the campus. Dozens of students walk to the library to wait for parents to pick them up.
Anecdotally, she said, she hears at least once a year that a child was hit by a car near that intersection. Kids are very unpredictable, she said.
“I understand that there are all of these traffic studies, but it is nearly impossible to predict their actions,” she said. “The best answer is to reduce the variables that they have to navigate.”
“I know that those are things that can be mediated if people follow the rules, but to me, we would err on the side of caution for children for their safety,” she added.
Fields, the chair of the zoning board, asked her whether the community would be upset if it were a different building being proposed.
“What if what was being built was a GameStop?” he asked.
“I really think it depends on the amount of parking and the amount of car entry and exit and whatever that is,” she said.
Fields asked a similar question to Angela Haynes, a teacher at Hamilton Elementary/Middle School: Would the community be okay with a Royal Farms convenience store?
“Anything you put at that site would potentially drive traffic to that location,” Fields said.
Haynes maintained that it would depend on what it is. A gas station, for instance, is “basically catered to cars” and encourages more cars to come and go.
Brown, the attorney for Royal Farms, asked the residents for evidence that the gas station would diminish pedestrian safety.
Sam, the vice president for the local school’s PTA, offered “lived experience.”
“I can’t imagine that more traffic, more entering and exiting where pedestrians are, doesn’t equate to a higher correlation of accidents,” Haynes said.
Brown grilled Ryan Dorsey, the council member representing the 3rd District, for more than an hour.
Dorsey, who was testifying on the side of residents, said the five-way intersection near the proposed gas station is unique and complex. The right solution is to reduce “drivers’ usage” of the road and prioritize pedestrians.
If the sidewalk is unsafe and in poor condition, the Department of Transportation could write the property owner a citation today and order them to correct the problems, he said, referring to the company’s proposal to improve the sidewalks.
“We don’t need private development in order to make sidewalks safe,” he said.
Again, Brown asked for the evidence of “causal connection” that increasing cars would undermines pedestrian safety.
“Is it your testimony that a community member could not walk to the Royal Farms and the convenience store and buy a chicken box?” Brown said.
“It is not my testimony that person could not,” Dorsey responded.
“Is it your testimony that a person could not leave their house, walk out their front door, get on the sidewalk and go to Royal Farms convenience store and buy a chicken?” Brown said.
“Not without walking through car-dominated landscape,” he said.
Again and again, Brown asked what prevented “any person in this community” from walking to the convenience store, asking for data.
Dorsey said there are some things data can’t capture.
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Angela Haynes’ surname.