The clock has restarted on an 11-year dispute between Royal Farms and communities surrounding Harford Road in Baltimore.

The chain known for its fried chicken wants to open a gas station near a busy intersection at 5901 Harford Road — something it first proposed in 2012. After a long hiatus, the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals — now made up of a completely different panel — will hear the company’s case on Feb. 6.

While Royal Farms has the zoning designation to open a convenience store, they need permission from the board for gas pumps. Community organizations, neighborhood residents and the local school’s PTA have adamantly opposed the plans, citing traffic, safety and public health concerns.

The company was initially successful, with the board approving a gas station in 2013 on the grounds it is was not more harmful than the retail store on its own.

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But after two community appeals and pushback, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled in 2018 that wasn’t the correct legal standard.

“You’re supposed to look at the entire zoning district and at this specific property and say, ‘Would a gas station at this location be more harmful here than it would be at any other place along this zoning district?’” said Becky Witt, the executive director of the board, in an interview with The Baltimore Banner.

After the court ruling, staff turnover, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, stalled the legal process.

Royal Farms said in a statement that the company has been working diligently to address community concerns, including safety, and will address them at the hearing.

“There has been a lot of misinformation surrounding this proposed Royal Farms location, and we look forward to presenting the facts on Tuesday,” the statement said. “As a locally based company, we are excited to have the opportunity to serve Hamilton and the surrounding communities in our hometown of Baltimore.”

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The proposed gas station, a 5,121-square-foot building on 76,316-square-foot parcel of unused land, would be near Hamilton Elementary/Middle School and the Hamilton branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Nestled near a five-way intersection, the school has a vibrant community with an active PTA and many tenured teachers. The building has a “beautiful outdoor classroom” and a garden as part of its status as a green school, said Katie Kinsel Sam, vice president of the PTA. She said parents, teachers and administrators collaborate to create a community where kids, including her own, can grow and thrive.

The gas station just “seems like a recipe for disaster,” she added.

Out of concern for pedestrian safety, the city implemented strategies to improve traffic along the corridor, including a dedicated bike lane. Angela Hayens, who has worked at Hamilton Elementary/Middle as a teacher for years, said parents and school have also advocated for a crossing guard at the intersection.

Having a gas station nearby, Kinsel and Hayens both said, could bring more cars into an area that already faces traffic issues where many kids walk Rather than a gas station, they wished there were plans for a place kids could safely spend time after school.

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“A Royal Farms is not it,” Hayens said.

Elise Petersen, a public historian, community public health educator and a parent, said in addition to traffic and air quality, the gas station does not fit the vision many have for their neighborhood. She described the neighborhood as one that attracts parents of young children who are creative and thrifty.

“It is such a loss not to use that plot for a rec center or a park or a skate park or, you know, something that could be a safe, wholesome place for kids to go hang out after school,” Petersen said.

In a letter sent to the zoning board on August 2023, the Friends of Hamilton Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s executive board said about 75 students use their resources every day after school.

“Anecdotally, we have been made aware of approximately 100 accidents at or near that intersection in the past eight years, at least some involving injuries to pedestrians,” the letter reads.

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Others, like Nicole Hartig, who has a background in environmental toxicology and lives a few blocks from where Royal Farms wants to build its gas station, worry about air quality.

Some places in Maryland have zoning codes that bar gas stations from being built within a certain distance from schools, like in Montgomery County, where large new gas stations must be at least 500 feet from homes, schools, parks or day care centers. That’s not the case in Baltimore, she said.

“It seems absurd to build new fossil fuel infrastructure in the age of climate change,” she added.

Ryan Dorsey, the council member representing the 3rd District, where the gas station is proposed, said it is “directly contrary” to the effort of revitalizing the neighborhood into a walkable, greener community.

Noting that residents have brought up concerns about the distance requirement for gas stations in other parts of Maryland, he said he will “absolutely” introduce a bill to prevent more gas stations from being built along the corridor.

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No one on the current zoning board has heard the Royal Farms case.

“They’ve never considered this case before, or heard any of the testimony,” Witt, the board’s executive director, said. “And all of our staff is new as well.”

Board members could revisit the two previous hearings on the case, Witt said. But a lot has changed in the corridor since then, particularly traffic patterns. To a certain extent, Witt added, the zoning board is starting from scratch.

This time, though, the Royal Farms matter will be the only case on their agenda. In the past, the hearing lasted until 11 p.m. Witt said she will try to hold the reins so the hearing, which will start at 10 a.m., doesn’t go past 4 p.m.

Then the board will take two weeks to deliberate and hopefully, Witt said, there will be a second hearing and a vote in February. Four out of the five members are needed to approve the gas station.

And then, will there be more hearings?

Witt sighed.

“I hope not,” she said. The case has been hanging over their heads for a long time, she said, but she believes it will almost certainly get appealed, meaning it would be in the hands fo the circuit court for almost a year.

She hopes the court upholds whatever the board ultimately decides.

“We’ve already devoted a huge huge, huge amount of time and energy into this specific property,” she said.

This article has been updated to correct the size of the land of the proposed project.

Clara Longo de Freitas is a neighborhood reporter covering East Baltimore communities. Before joining the Banner, she interned at The Baltimore Sun as an emerging news and community reporter. She also has design and illustration experience with several news organizations, including The Hill and NPR. 

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