Chicken Fight: The battle over a Royal Farms in Hamilton may be decided in the coming weeks

June 23 2015 City Paper

RoFo or No RoFo? That is the question.

It may be answered on June 30, when the Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals (BMZA) hears a request from Royal Farms to build a 4,100-square-foot, 12-pump gas station on the 5900 block of Harford Road in Hamilton, a plan that has drawn fierce opposition from many in the neighborhood.

Residents opposed to the plan have organized as No RoFo Hamilton. City Councilman Robert Curran, who represents the area, supports the sale of the property to Royal Farms.

The first community association vote over the issue took place in June 2012, and the outcome was 13-11 in favor of Royal Farms. Roop Vijayan, now the vice president for the Glenham-Belhar (GHBH) neighborhood association, suggests residents were not made aware of the proposal or the vote.

“We had to take over our neighborhood association,” he says.

Two months later, the newly organized GHBH neighborhood association called for a second vote. “Councilman Curran was there, about 100 people were there, and 56 residents were there to vote against Royal Farms Gas Station,” Vijayan says. The vote was 56-0 against the proposal.

“Councilman Curran told us he would support us, [he said] ‘You guys spoke loud and clear,’” Vijayan says. “And then we hear rumblings . . . that Curran is meeting with Royal Farms attorneys and City Department of Transportation.”

Dell Hagan Rhodes has owned a home on Glenmore Avenue with her husband since 2005. She has been actively involved in the community association since 2012. “We had a meeting early on . . . and Curran said, ‘during their re-vote, if they vote against it, then I will go with the community association. The will of the people.’ He just lied. I mean, he lied,” she says.

In an email, Royal Farms spokesperson Brittany Eldredge writes, “the positive support we got in initial meetings was a strong driver in our choosing of this location for a store and we believe we still have support in the community. It has been supported throughout this process by Councilman Curran, who represents the interests of his district.”

Curran feels he was put in an unfair position by the second community vote, and claims he never promised to stand by the final decision, even though a Baltimore Brew story on the meeting reported, “Curran said he would represent the community’s wishes based on the evening’s re-vote.”

“I’m in the position where it was already going to go to the board with the initial approval of the GHBH neighborhood association, and now they throw all the board and the president out, have a re-vote, and I’m stuck in the middle,” Curran says. “I had meetings with Royal Farms, several meetings. We saw the plans, I said, ‘that’s kind of large; let’s reduce this size,’” he says.

Curran says he sought to find middle ground with the community and secured $500,000 specifically to realign the intersection that all parties agree is dangerous, where the Royal Farms would be built. But Royal Farms offered to cede some of its potential property to allow a realignment, so Curran diverted those funds for a different road repair in the neighborhood.

“At the suggestion of Councilman Curran we agreed to donate property to the city for the modifications of the Harford Road / Glenmore Avenue intersection, enabling the intersection to be modified to address citizen’s concerns about safety,” writes Eldredge.

“We will be adding 45 jobs to the neighborhood and supporting 75 construction jobs with our $3 million capital investment,” she adds. The building that Royal Farms wants to lease is currently owned by the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 37 (IUOE). The building’s value has been assessed at $1.3 million, but according to Curran, Royal Farms’ lessee has offered the IUOE $2 million for the land and property, although Royal Farms did not confirm the terms of the lease.

Curran says the income from the sale will help fund the union’s pension. Curran is a strong supporter of unions, and he admits that International Union of Operating Engineers Local 37 has been a funder of his campaigns.

“No, I won’t hide behind that. They’re a friend,” Curran says. “I’m a union guy.”

Royal Farms sent representatives to talk with the community directly. “We have made a series of concessions to alleviate community concerns about our store,” writes Eldredge. “They include, but aren’t limited to; reducing the number of gas pumps from 7 to 6 (14 to 12 fuel dispensers), reducing the size of the store by about 1,000 square feet, and reducing parking spaces from 74 to 50.”

But the community wasn’t satisfied.

“I’m not clear about where the compromise is there,” Hagan Rhodes says. “They’re not addressing the major issues. They’re not addressing the traffic hazards. There are all these kids that are going to have to navigate this city-block-big monstrosity.”

The Hamilton Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library is directly across the street, Hamilton Elementary/Middle School is one block away, and the southbound bus stop used by some students after school is also directly across the street. A total of five neighborhood associations within Curran’s district oppose the sale: Glenmar-Belham, Lauraville, Hamilton Hills, Waltherson, and Westfield.

“I believe the opposition, not all, but some of the opposition is led by competitive gas stations,” Curran says. Residents opposing the new Royal Farms seemed to agree that closing down smaller, existing businesses is a problem, but expressed additional concern leaving subsequently vacant buildings throughout the corridor.

The proposed Royal Farms would stand across from a mom-and-pop deli, next to an independently owned 7-Eleven, and within a mile of four existing gas stations, the closest 440 yards away from the proposed site.

Curran sees the development as a positive for the neighborhood and the city, although maybe not the perfect solution.

“Some folks want to put a mega library out there, and I’d be all for that—but where’s the funding? Mr. Enoch Pratt died centuries ago. Is this the best use of this site? No. But there’s a whole lot worse uses,” he says, citing methadone clinics.

“I’m not going to be waffling back and forth,” Curran says. “I’m not going to go out there to kowtow to some mean-spirited, lunatic fringe political opportunists, which are out there now and using this for fodder, to say I don’t support the community. I can show you up and down Harford Road . . . that I’ve always supported the communities. This is the first time a community has flipped on me.”

“In my opinion,” Hagan Rhodes says, “this is a complete breakdown of what [Curran’s] public oath is.”

Representatives from Royal Farms will be present for the June 30 BMZA hearing, and Eldredge anticipates that the board will grant permission to proceed, given they cede some property for the intersection improvement. Once approved, they expect to be finished with construction within six months, weather permitting.

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