Cecil County Wants 20 Properties Added to Enterprise Zones for Econ Development; Council Frets Over Elkton Southside Project

September 3, 2019

Cecil County Economic Development officials are asking the County Council to approve a list of 20 properties to be added to Enterprise Zones, which receive property tax breaks and other incentives to promote new business opportunities. But some County Council members worried that citizen objections to the proposed mixed-use Southside/Southfields development should be addressed first.

Sandra Edwards, county economic development manager, told the County Council on Tuesday (9/2/2019) that the new roster of properties proposed for addition to the Enterprise Zone list is facing a 10/15/2019 deadline for submission to the state and for that reason the County Council is being asked to grant “expedited” status to the request, holding a public hearing on 10/1/2019 and a vote on the legislation the same night.

That didn’t sit well with Council President Bob Meffley (R-1), who said, “My phone’s been blowing up” with citizen objections to the Southside project, a mixed use development including industrial, retail and residential components on a 650-acre tract, between Pulaski Highway/Route 40 and Frenchtown Road, within the town limits of Elkton. The $700 million project is expected to include a sports park, about 1,000 single family homes and apartments, and 250 acres set aside for industrial uses. The project is slated to be developed by Ray Jackson, a prominent Baltimore developer who is negotiating to purchase the site from local owners. [The project is listed as Southside on the county map and project list but if Jackson proceeds with the acquisition it is proposed to be called Southfields.]

“We’re going to get our heads blown off,” Meffley said, if expedited procedures are used on any aspect of the project. People don’t like the word “expedited,” he said, and the developers need to give citizens “all the facts.” The developer recently held a public meeting for citizens in Elkton to explain the project.

Eric Sennstrom, the county’s director of land use services and planning, explained that all decisions about zoning and approval for the project are within the laws and procedures of the Town of Elkton, which is slated to consider the project in the next few weeks.

Councilor Jackie Gregory (R-5) said that in the past when incentives were sought, there was a “cost benefit analysis” but with this project there was no such calculation, and “that makes me nervous.”

Edwards explained that only the industrial sections of the project—totaling 244 acres on Pulaski Highway and nearly 55 acres on Maloney road—would be included in the enterprise zone category, which provides property tax credits for up to 10 years, based on new development that creates new jobs. Just including the property on the Enterprise Zone map does not guarantee its inclusion, since the developer would have to submit subsequent detailed plans and document how the project would create jobs before the County Council approved any tax breaks for a particular project.

Councilor William Coutz (R-2) said that people should not “put the cart before the horse” and engage in “assumptions run wild.” He commended the developer for holding an informational meeting for citizens and urged further outreach to the community.

Many of the objections raised so far involve fears of traffic congestion on Route 213 and trucks rumbling down narrow roads, like Maloney and Frenchtown roads. Some residents fear overcrowding of Bohemia Manor middle and high schools in Chesapeake City from new families moving to the area, although the current plan cuts in half the number of housing units proposed and approved for the site a decade ago.

The Southside project has also been designated as an “opportunity zone” by the state of Maryland, using a new overlay of job creation incentives established under the federal tax cut legislation enacted by the Trump administration. Investors will be able to avoid capital gains income taxes on a portion of profits on other investments if they direct new investments to “opportunity zone” projects for up to 10 years.

The new list of proposed properties for designation as Enterprise Zones includes a total of 1,787 acres, with 372 acres within the Elkton town limits. Multiple properties located within the town of North East are also included, and most of the properties are located along or adjacent to Pulaski Highway/Route 40, the heart of the county’s “growth corridor” where economic development promotion is focused.

Former County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) has four properties on the new list, but he told CECIL TIMES in an interview that he only asked for one property—the North East Business Center at 800 Red Toad Road—to be included. He said three other sites—on Red Toad Road and Pulaski Highway—were added by the county economic development officials because they seemed to be looking to assemble a swath of development-incentive properties to attract new development to the Route 40 corridor.

Hodge said he thought a new developer could re-invent the old Harbison-Walker manufacturing plant site, tearing down the crumbling building on Red Toad Road that produced specialty bricks used in blast furnaces decades ago. “There’s almost no employment on these parcels” now, Hodge said, and if a new developer acquired the properties, they could be converted into job creating projects. Hodge also owns two manufactured home parks in the county and a port-a-potty business that has been a focus of his recent business endeavors.

Among the sites on the new list is a 662-acre site owned by York Building Products, part of the Stewart family holdings in the county, on Belvedere road adjoining the Principio business park that has been a centerpiece of new job creation in the county in the past few years. The Stewarts are contributing over $2 million to the costs of creating a new Interstate 95 exit at Belvedere road to serve Principio and ease truck traffic congestion and road damage on local roads.

Also on the list is the Big Elk Mall in Elkton and the adjacent Holly Hall property on Big Elk Mall road. The mall has been a flailing eyesore for years, with vacant storefronts and encampments of homeless people in the woods behind the mall. The closing of the anchor tenant of the mall, K-Mart, several years ago left a gaping economic hole in the area, although one-third of the old K-mart building is expected to become the new home of Ollies, a regional discount retailer. The designation of the property as an Enterprise Zone is hoped to provide a new spark for the aging facility.

Another large 395-acre parcel, located at 183 Zeitler Road in Elkton, is adjacent to the Triumph Industrial Park and as such considered a potential development prospect, but Edwards said there was no specific economic development proposal pending for the property. State land and business records identify the site’s owner, Cecil Real Properties LLC, as linked to officers of Cecil Bancshares and the former Cecil Bank.

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