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Mall road plan would put homes on a median strip

June 16, 1998|By JULIE E. GREENE

by KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

enlargement

John Kneisley

Cruising along U.S. 40 west of Hagerstown, it's easy to miss the six one-story brick houses to the right or six other nearby homes nestled under trees.

Many of the residents of those homes moved decades ago to the area that is convenient to the city and offers the peacefulness of a rural setting.

They awaken to the sight of rabbits, deer and other wildlife in their backyards, which abut a farm and about 400 acres of grass and trees.

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Their serenity could be disrupted in September when construction is to begin on a $40 million shopping center with a four-lane entry road that will wrap around their homes, according to a proposed design.

The Centre at Hagerstown would go on about 79 acres northwest of the interchange for Interstate 81 and U.S. 40.

If the plans stand, the six homes would end up on a median strip between the entry road and U.S. 40.

That prospect does not thrill those who live in the homes.

"I picked this spot because I like the pastoral setting," said Paul Hecker, 60, of 17542 Swann Road.

Hecker and his wife, Sally, said they spend up to six hours a day in their backyard, gardening or swimming in their pool.

They said they raised their three children with few concerns about safety in their neighborhood. Their three grandchildren ride bikes on Swann Road and play in the yard.

"This is really an intrusion," Hecker said.

The four-lane entry road would sweep through the meadow to the back of their home and dump hundreds of cars from U.S. 40 into a nearby parking lot.

Swann Road would be cut off, isolating the six homes between the entry road and U.S. 40. The residents would have to use the entrance to the shopping center to get home.

Many of the residents along Swann Road and nearby Honeysuckle Lane said they want the entrance road moved further east, closer to the I-81 interchange.

Phillip L. Ross, the director of the company developing the shopping center, said Friday that State Highway Administration officials believe it's safer to have the road run west of the Swann Road homes.

Ron Burns, chief of the highway administration's access permits division, said Monday that is true, but said the state has not approved the proposed road design.

He said the office's official policy is to not allow access from U.S. 40 as Ross proposes. A traffic study must be completed before a decision is made, Burns said.

In addition to safety concerns, developing a shopping center on farmland goes against Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth initiative, which encourages development within cities.

Thirteen families in the area have hired Hagerstown attorney Roger Schlossberg to fight the development.

Schlossberg last Tuesday made an impassioned but unsuccessful plea to City Council members, asking them not to annex land for the shopping center.

The annexation was approved and the land will become part of the city on July 24.

Several of his clients said they do not believe they can stop the shopping center, but they want the entry road moved.

They are prepared to fight, whether that means appealing the annexation in Washington County Circuit Court or battling for changes during the planning process.

"I'm really offended by the fashion which they've come in here. The whole process has come in here like a runaway train," Schlossberg said.

Several neighbors said they didn't learn of the proposed shopping center until April, when they received an invitation to a steak dinner with land owner Vincent Groh and Ross, director of the McLean, Va., development firm, Petrie Dierman Kughn.

Ross said he offered to buy the six Swann Road homes for a price above fair market value and remains willing to discuss that option.

Kelly Kneisley, like at least four of her neighbors, said the offer wasn't high enough to enable the family to buy a similar home in a similar setting.

Ross said he also offered to build a buffer between the houses and the road, if the residents supported the shopping center.

"They clearly aren't supporting the project in my view as a result of the public hearing on Tuesday," Ross said.

Other concerns

Residents' concerns go beyond the entry road. They worry about the effect of blasting on the foundations of their homes, and on their wells and septic systems.

Ross said blasting would occur more than a quarter of a mile from the houses and go no deeper than 10 feet.

Adding to the neighbors woes are a proposed third lane on westbound U.S. 40 and a traffic signal in front of the Swann Road homes.

"We'll have traffic backed up in front of the houses and behind," Kelly Kneisley said.

"The bottom line is whoever has the most money will win, which is not us," said Earl Reynard, of 17550 Swann Road.

The proposed design calls for Swann Road to be extended around Reynard's house with a 20,000-square-foot building across the new road. The rest of the shopping center could be visible across the parking lot unless a berm or trees were installed.

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