Town officials opened windows, invited spectators into adjacent offices and put the proceedings on speaker phone in those offices for better listening.
More than thirty people signed up to testify, but when it became obvious that the time for public comment would not happen for hours and there was nowhere to sit, Planning and Zoning Officer Sarah Abel arranged with the Board of Zoning Appeals for those waiting to comment via e-mail.
At the end of the meeting, around 9:15 p.m., Abel called up those e-mails and read the names of those who had sent them into the hearing’s record.
The property over which details are being debated is the old St. Michaels Citgo gas station at 906 South Talbot Street.
The property was sold in April 2017 to a group of businessmen, American Corner LLC, and their desire is to tear down the old gas station building, construct a much larger building that is predominantly a convenience store containing a coffee shop, a separate car wash, and increase the number of double gas pumps from two to six, among other things.
Slowly gaining momentum, citizen protests have centered around not wanting to have a large, modern commercial building in a gateway position to the historic town, doubting the need for an expanded gas station when they already have two, heavy traffic congestion in the town made worse, the possibility of having to install a traffic light and danger to school children crossing busy Talbot Street to reach the complex. There are also environmental concerns.
Negotiations have been going on for over a year, with the plans moving from Planning Commission to Technical Advisory Committee to Board of Zoning Appeals and back again.
Many details were changed to suit the town’s code, but with many details still yet to be settled, the St. Michaels Planning Commission passed the preliminary site plan unanimously on August 7.
A month later, David Beauregard II, who owns a home at 903 Talbot Street, filed an appeal of the planning commission’s approval through his attorney, Zach Smith.
During the appeal hearing, Beauregard and Smith contended that there are six major points in the preliminary plan that do not meet the town’s code.
Many of the issues involve required numbers of parking spaces based on the square footage of the proposed buildings and their uses.
Citing Sections 340-34 C, -34D, -25A and -17B of the town code, they stated that they felt that the wrong definitions were being used and inadequate parking was provided. There was no parking provided for the car wash, they said, and gas station bays were being counted as parking spaces.
They also said there were violations of the code in stormwater management and landscape beds.
Representing American Corner LLC was attorney Brynja Booth.
On the American Corner LLC team there was Mohammed Nasser, Nadeem Ashraf, Nasrullaah “Nick” Khan, architect Christian Chute of Atelier 11, planner Sean Callahan and Waqar Cheema. Also on the team is fuel mechanical parts contractor John Harrison and Nate Hoxter of Lane Engineering, among others.
Booth took each point and revisited definitions in relation to each claimed violation. It was discussed that a car wash would not need parking due to the nature of the service going on inside the building.
It was also discussed that patrons could park in gasoline bays and not necessarily purchase gasoline.
Representing the St. Michaels Planning Commission was attorney Patrick Thomas, who was present along with Chairman Dennis Glackin.
Public comment did not start until about 8:30 p.m., about three hours into the meeting. By that time, there was no one waiting outside.
Board of Zoning Appeals Chairman William Harvey advised citizens making comment that they needed to confine their remarks to the six points that were being debated in the appeal.
Those town residents who testified in person included Susan Reiss, Marie Martin, John Novak and Erin Hynson, among others.
“I think the plan for this proposal is too big,” Reiss said. “It is not in keeping with the personality of the town.”
“We live by the tourists,” Reiss said. “I think having them see something like this when they first come into town is a mistake. I’m ver y disappointed these exceptions were granted.”
She said she looked to the Board of Zoning Appeals to help the town “come together” and work together.
Marie Martin said she was disheartened about the lack of the “sense of empathy” that those involved had about inserting a modern building among historic ones.
“I also agree that it could become harmful to our tourist trade — people coming into the town,” she said. She said she hoped a tree buffer could be included to keep that image from being so obvious.
John Novak said he had known about the project for several months but only recently became aware of its size.
“I was shocked quite frankly by the size of it,” he said. He said he had lived in the town for four years and knew what traffic was like during the tourist season.
“With a two-lane road and without a third left turn lane, you’ll have people coming into the town and making a left turn across that traffic ... you’re going to add a substantial congestion factor,” he said.
Erin Hynson said she realized the plans were still in flux, but she hoped the board would make sure the new addition would not detract from surrounding historic properties, and possibly decrease the value of those properties.
She talked about the impact on surrounding properties in terms of noise, glare and traffic.
Hynson said that, according to her understanding of the town’s comprehensive plan, one of St. Michaels’ mission statements was to continue to work very hard not to detract from “its small town atmosphere.”
She read from a book on St. Michaels that talked about the establishment of the town’s Historic District Commission.
Dozens of e-mails were received before the end of the meeting at 9:15 p.m. and were entered into the hearing record as public testimony.
After four hours of listening to pros and cons, Har vey suggested the Board of Zoning Appeals would be fresher if the hearing could be continued later on in the week, and it would also give the board members a chance to mull over what they had heard.
He closed the public comment portion of the hearing and it was agreed that the Board of Appeals would continue with its deliberations at 1 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12, at the St. Michaels Town Office on Mill Street. Public comment is closed, he said, but the meeting is open to the public.