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Bowie council okays first Amber Ridge plan despite traffic concerns

BowieCityCouncilBOWIE - Traffic concerns once again came to the forefront as the Bowie City Council debated upcoming development.

On Monday, the council voted 5-1 to approve, with conditions, the conceptual site plan (CSP) for Amber Ridge, a 19-acre property which would contain approximately 150-200 townhomes and about 20,000-square feet of commercial or retail space. The developers also would potentially include three pocket parks and a pedestrian connection with the South Bowie Community Center. The development would front US 301 between the Mitchellville Road and Pointer Ridge Road intersections.

Although four of the councilmembers expressed concerns about traffic safety for people exiting the potential new development onto 301, only one, Michael Esteve, voted against the project. The concern is that drivers would need to make unsafe U-turns at Pointer Ridge Place to go northbound on 301 unless a light is installed at Amber Ridge’s entrance. The decision on whether a light is necessary rests with the State Highway Administration.

“As far as the safety concerns on 301, I know that a lot of the things are really in State Highway’s court as far as decisions that need to be made regarding a second traffic study at the time of preliminary plan of subdivision,” Esteve said. “So a lot of things are yet to be determined. I do get a little bit nervous because whenever we look at development in this body, the plan that was the important one was always the preceding stage or the following stage.”

Councilman Isaac Trouth, who represents the area where Amber Ridge would be built, amended city staff’s list of conditions to put traffic at the top of that list. He said an example of the kind of mitigation measures he is looking for is found at the Hall Station development on MD 214, which has turn lanes.

“Although trip counts are very important, that’s not the key component here in this particular project. The key component, what is paramount, is public safety. We just cannot see, understand, or believe that public safety will be enhanced. Instead, it will be deteriorated if there is no light to cross over onto 301 north,” he said. “And also, in the staff report, on northbound 301, there is a turn lane to come into Amber Ridge.”

Matthew Tedesco, attorney for the developer, said his client is very aware of the traffic challenges in that area. When the zoning for the parcel was changed in 2014, a trip cap and a requirement to mitigate 150 percent of any development’s impact were added, which he said remain in force.

“We understand the issues with traffic adequacy and the transportation issues associated with especially 301 in this area,” Tedesco said. “We’re not hiding from it. We acknowledge it.”

He said the parcel was initially zoned for commercial uses, like a shopping center, but after years of being unable to find an anchor tenant for a shopping center, the property owner decided to change focus and get the property rezoned for mixed-use. Tedesco said the owners consulted the city’s own master plan when determining what the new use should be.

“We turned to the master plan, the planning document that was supported by this city as well as the council and adopted in 2006, what does it recommend?” Tedesco said. “It shows Amber Ridge, and the properties to the south, being a mixed-use project. So that’s what we endeavored to do, to comply with the master plan.”

However the new development plan is far less dense than the 200,000-square foot shopping center, so Tedesco said the state may no longer see a light on 301 as necessary.

“Traffic adequacy standard is always trips. We do not believe that a light with a half signal would be warranted under this scenario,” he said. “We’re not here in opposition to that. We just can’t show it on this plan because it’s not warranted.”

Unlike at other meetings concerning development projects in Bowie, residents did not come out in force to oppose Amber Ridge, with only one signing up to speak. However, the residents on the Bowie Advisory Planning Board voted 3-0 with one abstention against the plan. Chair Carl Schuettler said among the concerns was a potential negative impact on the adjacent Pointer Ridge Plaza shopping center.

“There were one or two BAPB members who were concerned with the 75 percent occupancy rate at Pointer Ridge, whereby it’s 25 percent unfilled. So perhaps Amber Ridge, the new development, would adversely affect Pointer Ridge,” he said. “Then, on the other side, it may help.”

Tedesco said his clients believed their project could result in revitalization at the center, with the increased density making it more attractive to businesses as well as creating a “sense of synergy” with the surrounding area.

“We believe that having a smaller commercial footprint fronting 301, that is more service-oriented, more residentially service-oriented, smaller potential uses with an actual development there with 150 to 200 townhouses, will absolutely incentivize Pointer Ridge Plaza,” he said.

The CSP must get approval from the county, and then a preliminary plan of subdivision and a detailed site plan must go before the city and the county, before any construction can begin.

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