Forest Drive at Hilltop Lane
Having grown up in Annapolis in the 1970′s, I can remember when much of Forest Drive was, in fact, forest. Over the years I’ve watched development change the character of the corridor as one property after another became a residential subdivision or a strip shopping center.
These decades of development have shrunk the natural habitat for many species of animals, added sedimentation and pollution to our creeks, and increased daily vehicle counts on our roadways by the thousands.
Moreover, the piecemeal way in which the corridor was developed has left it with a fragmented identity. One of the qualities people love most about Annapolis is its authentic sense of place. Ironically, many residents along Forest Drive feel disconnected instead.
For these reasons and more, I am concerned about the impact of Crystal Spring Annapolis, a proposed development on the largest privately owned forest remaining on Forest Drive. I would love to see the forest preserved, and often find myself asking, “When is enough development enough?”
Like most Annapolitans, I recognize that property owners have the right to build on their property. We also recognize that developers may care less about environmental preservation, traffic impacts and quality design than they do about maximizing the return on their investment. Therefore we demand that our government not only work with the applicant but protect the community’s interests as well.
People often ask whether I support Crystal Spring or plan to fight it. My response is informed by the fact that this private property will be developed at some point. We have the ability to influence not whether it is developed, but how. Therefore, my response to the question – and my focus as Mayor – is to ensure that the final product is the best it can be for our community.
Crystal Spring proposed site plan, January 8, 2013. Click image for full size.
Crystal Spring covers 190 acres at the juncture of Forest Drive and Spa Road. It includes theChesapeake Dressagehorse riding center and the Wellness House of Annapolis cancer support home. The development site is 111 acres of which roughly 82 acres are forest.
The owners have signed a purchase agreement with a company called Crystal Spring Development, LLC to build a senior housing mixed-use development called Crystal Spring Annapolis. The plan is anchored by a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) proposed to include 362 units. It also proposes to include 126 townhomes, 176,000 square feet of retail space, and other amenities including a cultural arts center, an 80-room inn and spa, a chapel, a 2-acre outdoor village green, and a new, expanded home for the Wellness House.
All told, the area proposed for development spans 64 acres of which roughly 49 are presently forested. In short, it will be one of the largest developments in the City’s history.
The Crystal Spring concept is not the only way this property can be developed. The law allows a sprawling subdivision of several hundred houses which would almost certainly add significant traffic to Forest Drive during the morning and evening commutes. Another possibility is for the property to be split up and sold off in pieces, contributing even more to the disjointed nature of Forest Drive.
Given the allowable alternatives, Crystal Spring’s concept of a mixed-use village center anchored by a CCRC is a promising option with many potential benefits to our community. The developers have already made significant improvements in response to community feedback and comments from the City, earning support from the South River Federation and others. Several positive aspects of the plan include the following:
- The developers have made an unprecedented commitment to reforest acre-for-acre all woodland that is cleared. Any reforestation done offsite will be planted in environmentally sensitive areas under the guidance of the City and the South River Federation.
- The property owner will place more than 75 acres of woodland and open space into permanent conservation. All told, the plan preserves 125 acres – roughly two-thirds of the entire site – as open space or undeveloped.
- In addition to extensive onsite stormwater management, the developers will restore two unregulated drainage areas offsite. This will improve water quality in Crab Creek by treating runoff from a 70-acre area that includes Annapolis Middle School and Newtowne 20.
- The plan proposes more than 2 acres of green roofs, 5 acres of permeable roadways, and geothermal heating and cooling for 400,000 square feet of building space.
- The plan extends Skippers Lane, providing an alternative connector road from Spa Road all the way to the Safeway shopping plaza.
- Crystal Spring will fund a free trolley from Crystal Spring to downtown. This will make it easy for the new residents of Crystal Spring as well as residents of Hunt Meadow and along the Spa Road corridor to visit downtown attractions and businesses without driving.
- The plan extends the bike lane in front of the Safeway from Hilltop Lane to Spa Road.
- The completed project will provide 1,200 permanent jobs onsite, and the developers have committed to provide job skills training for local residents.
Above all, Crystal Spring presents an opportunity to anchor Forest Drive with a much needed sense of place. In contrast with the decades of piecemeal development characterizing much of the corridor, Crystal Spring offers well-designed walkable neighborhoods, intergenerational housing, multiple transportation options, public gathering places, vibrant retail and hundreds of new jobs.
Still, the plan’s impact on traffic and the environment, in particular the loss of so much mature woodland, is a concern to many of us. Simply put, I believe the size of the proposed development is too big, and have urged the developers to further reduce the amount of acreage being cleared.
The City’s review process is the key to addressing all of these concerns and ensuring compliance with zoning, the City’s Comprehensive Plan, and other regulations.
The City’s review process has three basic stages: First, the City’s professional staff reviews the plans, recommends revisions if needed, and once satisfied, recommends approval. Second, the city’s volunteer Planning Commission reviews the revised plans and holds a public hearing. Once the Planning Commission is satisfied, it may approve the plans, often with additional conditions. Third, once plans have received Planning Commission approval, the developer needs to receive grading and building permits in order to begin construction.
Crystal Spring is still at the first stage in the process.
Changes to the process
Last year I directed that the City ensure all environmental features are properly identified at the very beginning of the process. This change ended up adding a year to the review of Crystal Spring, but it was necessary to ensure the integrity and quality of our environmental review.
Also last year, the City Council appointed a Forest Conservation Act (FCA) Working Group to review the City’s legislative and regulatory framework for allowing development in wooded areas. The Council is now considering legislation recommended by the Working Group. A majority of the Council and I agree that any changes we enact to the FCA will apply to Crystal Spring.
Review of Crystal Spring
The first approval required of Crystal Spring was the Forest Stand Delineation (FSD), an inventory of all natural resources on the property. The City required the development team to revise their proposed FSD more than half a dozen times because it did not adequately identify the site’s forest coverage and other natural features.
More recently, after the development team submitted their proposed Forest Conservation Plan (FCP), City staff issued 12 pages of comments to request clarification and revisions. As of this writing, the developers have yet to submit an approved FCP.
This detailed review by the City’s professional staff demonstrates their thoroughness and impartiality, and I am pleased with their insistence on getting this right. Moreover, staff’s comments validate many of the concerns expressed by the Annapolis Environmental Commission and others about the developers’ initial submittals.
I have directed this process be as transparent as possible. All of the Crystal Spring submittals are posted online, and City staff reviews all public comments in earnest. Once the traffic study is released I encourage the public to review it carefully, scrutinize the methodology, and offer feedback. The same holds true for the environmental reviews, economic analysis and other reports.
Change takes time. I have called on the City’s professional staff to raise the bar and make Crystal Spring a model for environmental protection and quality design. As the plans work their way through the review process, I am confident the City will require further changes that will address many of the community’s concerns.
The community’s voice needs to be heard. I invite interested citizens to follow the project’s progress on the City’s website at bit.ly/11wpY0W. Take the time to let me and your alderperson know your views, analyze studies as they are made available, submit feedback to the City’s professional staff, and express your comments to the Planning Commission at the appropriate time.
By working together, we have an opportunity to make Crystal Spring Annapolis the best it can possibly be – a village center that enhances our community for decades to come.
– Mayor Josh Cohen, August 12, 2013