Commissioners approve Aspen Institute rezoning
CENTREVILLE — The Queen Anne’s County Commissioners unanimously approved the rezoning of more than 100 acres of the tax map from Neighborhood Conservation-5 (NC-5) to Countryside (CS) zoning during its Tuesday, Oct. 11, meeting.
Aspen Institute’s Wye River Conference Center, located on 1,000 acres given to the organization by the Houghton family, was previously zoned Countryside (CS) and Neighborhood Conservation (NC-5). The problem was the Houghton House was split directly down the middle by the two zonings.
Barry Griffith with Lane Engineering, who testified to the county commissioners during its Sept. 27 meeting, said he had never seen a zoning line go through the middle of a structure. Griffith has been a practicing planner in the public and private sector for almost 30 years.
Griffith said in 1967 Queen Anne’s County had its first zoning completed and all of the properties were zoned Residential 1, the basic rural district at the time. A subdivision was created in 1984 on the property that created five lots along the Wye River, but when the county went through a “very significant” comprehensive rezoning in 1987, Griffith said, the lots were not included in the maps used in the update. On top of outdated and inaccurate maps, counties did not have Global Information Systems or computer-aided drafting to assist the zoning process, he said.
“Those lots did not yet show up on the map that they had,” Griffith said. “And that’s not unusual.”
During that time, Griffith said, planners used the latest available assessment and taxation map as the base for the zoning maps. Assessment and taxation maps were not updated annually, Griffith said, so there was always a “lag between subdivisions and line revisions that occurred on the publication of those maps.”
Simply put, Griffith said the zoning line was an error. Griffith said in most cases zoning lines follow property lines, roads and natural features.
Griffith said the NC-5 zoning, which allows five-acre lot sizes, is meant to be used for existing residential neighborhoods.
“That clearly is not the character of the Houghton House property,” he said. “The Houghton House property is agriculture, it’s institutional, and these are all things that are more akin to the countryside.”
Joseph Stevens, an attorney representing Aspen Institute, said the Houghton House received Board of Appeals conditional use approval in 2008, which was reaffirmed in 2011, for an expansion of the house. The expansion, he said, would about double the number of rooms.
Stevens said he was asked to see if it was possible to “have some rooms at the Houghton House, once expansion is done, be available to rent to the general public versus simply being able to rent to somebody who’s at the conference.” Stevens told Aspen Institute it was possible to offer rentals on one half the house but not the other because the Neighborhood Conservation-5 zoning did not allow for country inns.
Stevens said the property’s agricultural uses are allowed in the Countryside zoning but has limitations in the Neighborhood Conser vation-5.
Griffith said that there is no intention for any residential subdivisions to be built, which he said is what the NC-5 zoning is better suited for. Stevens said the NC-5 zoning would be the easiest designation for Aspen Institute to develop further.
Stevens also said that when the property was acquired by the Houghton family, it came with restrictions that say residential subdivisions are not allowed.
Cindy Buniski, Aspen Institute Wye Campus executive director, said the group talked about running a country inn multiple years ago when the economy struggled but decided it didn’t “want to get into that business.”
During the recession, Buniski said, the institute lost a lot of corporate businesses. Once corporate businesses came back to the conference center, Buniski said an executive order was completed that said no government business could go off site, causing about 25 percent of its business to disappear.
“It was really tough and it hasn’t come back yet,” she said.
The property came without an endowment, so thousands of acres and about 40 buildings need to be maintained from whatever revenue it receives from the conference center.
The Houghten House, located on the Aspen Institute campus, was rezoned from Neighborhood Conservation-5 to Countryside during the county commission’s Tuesday, Oct. 11, meeting. The previous zoning line split the house directly down the middle.