A quiet and respectful but passionate crowd showed up for Tuesday night's public hearing held to address zoning issues before the Baltimore County Council as part of the quadrennial Comprehensive Zoning Map Process.
The CZMP allows any Baltimore County resident to request a change in the current zoning of any parcel of land — whether they own it or not. However, requests are most commonly made by property owners and Baltimore County Government staff members.
Locally, residents were mostly concerned about the zoning change requested for the former Seagram's plant property on Sollers Point Road.
Long an eyesore, the property has deteriorated, been used as a dump by a previous owner and has been the site of numerous fires in recent months.
The more than 14-acre property is zoned to allow one house per acre. John Vontran, the current owner, is seeking changes to allow a mix of office and residential use.
While the majority of speakers on Tuesday opposed that particular zoning request, a couple are in favor of Vontran's request.
One woman, who told council members she lives close to the property, said anything built there would be better than what currently exists.
Many speakers brought into question Vontran's past record, his legal and financial troubles and the concern that he is not capable of bringing a mixed used project on the property to fruition.
Sollers Point Road resident Charles Spencer said he agrees the property does need to be redeveloped, and noted the grounds have been a "dumping ground and an eyesore" for many years.
Vontran, a long-time friend and supporter of Councilman John Olszewski Sr., was the developer of a new, single-family housing community on Yorkway, Spencer said, which he believes would be good for the Seagram's property as well.
Lawyer Chris Mudd, who spoke on behalf of Vontran's request, said he wanted to correct conflicting information in the community about the zoning request.
Much talk has centered around a proposed property swap, with Vontran trading the Seagram's property to Baltimore County in exchange for the land currently occupied by the North Point Government Center— the former North Point Junior High School at the corner of Merritt Boulevard and Wise Avenue.
The zoning request is "unrelated to any potential land swap being discussed," Mudd said.
The lawyer noted that Vontran is involved in a voluntary environmental remedial cleanup up of the property in cooperation with the Maryland Department of the Environment; he has applied for a razing permit to take down the remaining Seagram's plant buildings; and is "swiftly moving" toward creating a plan that would allow senior housing, office space and other related uses of the land.
Longtime Dundalk music teacher Beverly Bruening said that Dundalk has many needs but that new office space, high-rise buildings and additional traffic are not among those needs.
"Only the developers will benefit—I ask you to oppose this request," she said.
Rose Mary Tallon said she supports the redevelopment of the Seagram's property but agrees that office space is not the best use of the land.
Citing online research using two resources, Tallon said Dundalk's office space vacancy stands at 27 percent, which implies there is not a need for more.
The office residential zoning requested by Vontran is not the best way to guarantee that senior housing comes to fruition on the property, Tallon said.
She reminded the seven council members that their votes on the zoning issue would have longterm impact and would affect the lives of Dundalk residents for decades to come.
Historically, the council typically observes "councilmanic courtesy" and follows the lead of the council member who represents the district—in this case, Olszewski—when voting on issues.
Many residents who are opposed to the zoning request are not necessarily opposed to the redevelopment of the Seagram's property; they just want more information and more transparency in the process.
Donna Sekora, who told the council she lives less than a tenth of a mile from the property, said she opposes the request until more details are available about what is planned.
Outside of the meeting, Sekora said she is concerned about the "surprises" that always seem to come from processes like the CZMP.
"Nothing goes as planned," she said. "The community is told one thing, and once they get their zoning, everything slips through the cracks and the plans change."
Vontran has owned the land for four years and nothing has changed there, Sekora said.
"He has done nothing," Sekora said of Vontran. "You need to prove yourself before you can be trusted and he has done nothing to gain the trust of the community."
Ken Crizer, who owns the Dun Dealgan restaurant directly across Sollers Point Road from Seagram's, said he has met with Vontran and supports his vision for the property.
Vontran's plans will be "for the betterment of the community," said Crizer, who is the brother of Ed Crizer, a long-time friend and supporter of Olszewski.
Ed Crizer was appointed by Olszewski to the county Board of Appeals and chairman of the council's redistricting committee.
Eastfield Stanbrook Community Association President Karen Cruz, who said she represents more than 1,600 households, brought into question Vontran's legal and financial troubles.
"Mr. Vontran should not even be eligible to do business with Baltimore County," she said. "Why this developer and what is the relationship?"
After the council completes its councilmanic district hearings, it will hold a special session Aug. 28 for the final adoption of zoning changes, according to the Baltimore County website.