After five public meetings totaling 15 hours, an Annapolis commission last week brought to a close one of the longest-running and acrimonious development fights in city history. But there may be more battles to come.
Since December, the Annapolis Planning Commission has heard lengthy testimony from developers, experts, environmental advocates and everyday citizens about plans for The Villages at Providence Point, a continuing care retirement community in the Crystal Spring Forest along Forest Drive. The commission voted 5-0, with two abstentions, on Feb. 17 to approve the plans which been submitted to the city in various forms over the last decade.
The Planning Committee will meet again Thursday to vote on a draft opinion, essentially a written version of their ruling. If it’s approved, the applicants can begin immediately applying for building, grading and other permits. The approval would also initiate a 30-day window in which the decision can be appealed to the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.
Larry Bradshaw, the retired CEO of National Lutheran Communities and Services, and his successor Cyndi Walters celebrated last week’s approval but acknowledged there is still much that must be done before shovels hit the dirt on the continuing care retirement community.
Bradshaw said he hoped no one would appeal the decision, pointing to the “comprehensive and thorough” review process by the Planning Commission and the “collaborative nature” of the proposal, which has changed drastically over the last 10 years thanks in part to heavy involvement from an opposition group, Concerned Citizens for Proper Land Use, led by Gerald Winegrad, a former Maryland politician and Capital Gazette columnist.
Winegrad’s group, along with numerous local politicians, environmental leaders and experts, withdrew its opposition last year after extracting four major concessions related to traffic, stormwater management and future development on the 176-acre site.
“If you look at the sheer opposition to the project six years ago it would’ve been tough to sell,” said Bradshaw, who has led the effort since 2011. “But now that we collaborated with the city, with other groups in the city, I think the project is much stronger and much more part of the community versus being divisive and isolated.”
Still, a group of residents and environmental advocates say the fight isn’t over.
“The simple answer is, we are working on an appeal,” said Laura Townsend, the vice president of Crab Creek Conservancy, in an interview Thursday.
The group, made up of Townsend, Forrest Mays, the group’s president, Ross Geredian, treasurer, and others have fought hard against the project, railing against the negative environmental and climate impacts it could cause. They are opposed to any kind of development on the property, which is considered the last mature forest in the city.
In January, the leaders from Crab Creek Conservancy sent a letter to the Planning Commission demanding equal time to testify on the project, which led to four additional hearings being scheduled. The group has raised about $6,300 from a GoFundMe to fund its efforts. The money is expected to be used to pay for legal expenses, Townsend said.
To appeal a decision, an appellant must have standing, meaning “Someone who is personally affected by the decision,” said City Attorney Mike Lyles.
Mays, an Annapolis resident who lives close to the proposed development, would likely fit that description, said Tom Smith, the city’s Chief of Current Planning, who has overseen the plans since they were first introduced.
Mays couldn’t be reached for this story.
Smith, who has worked in the Department of Planning and Zoning for 30 years, said this would likely be the first appeal of a Planning Commission decision during his tenure.
Smith’s office first received an application for the project in 2011 when National Lutheran and a group of Connecticut developers proposed a massive mixed-use development, formerly known as Crystal Spring Annapolis, that included a shopping center, restaurants and a hotel, plus the retirement community and other residential units.
But after significant community backlash, it became clear the project would have to change, said Bradshaw, who announced his retirement last year. He has agreed to stay on to continue advising on the project.
The Connecticut developers left in 2017, the name of the project changed soon after and every aspect except the retirement community was eliminated from the proposal. The final plan approved by the Planning Commission will feature about 350 apartments and health care suites to be built on about 27 acres of land, nearly half of what was initially proposed.
National Lutheran has also promised to replace every tree it clears, make improvements to traffic patterns at Spa Road and Forest Drive, and implement various stormwater management systems. There is also a conservation easement in place to ensure no future development on the remaining 120-plus acres on the property.
“To have so many individuals that had been in bitter opposition to the project, sign off and really support the project, I think was really just kind of a road map if you will for potential future developments and collaboration between developers in the city and the public,” Bradshaw said.
Before the developers can begin construction, they must meet requirements set by the Maryland Department of Aging by selling at least 65% of their units, which amounts to about 160 of 278 units that would be built in the first of two construction phases, Bradshaw said. A second phase calls for another 72 units to be built.
With city approvals nearly complete, National Lutheran has sold 80 units so far with a target of selling another 80 by this fall, said Walters, whose sales team operates out of a showroom near the intersection of Jennifer Road and Solomons Island Road.
Bradshaw said he would like to see construction begin before the end of the year. He predicted the project will create between 1,200 and 1,500 construction jobs over a two-year period. Around 140 full- and part-time jobs would become available when the project is complete, he said.
Once completed, the facility would be one of two approved continuing care retirement facilities within the city limits. The other is Baywoods of Annapolis on Bay Front Drive. Another similar development, Ginger Cove, is in Parole located in Anne Arundel County.
Some residents have criticized the high upfront price tag to live in the facility, which ranges into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, making it an option for mostly wealthy patrons.
Walters said there are plans to offer home care services to the surrounding area, including transportation, homemaking, housekeeping and meal preparation.
The demand for an independent living community has been apparent for years, Bradshaw said.
“There is only one reason we did this for 10 years, other than my stubbornness,” he said. “It’s a very robust market. It’s why we wanted to go in there.”