A split town council approved a zoning text change that will allow home improvement centers to propose stores larger than 65,000 square feet.
The Easton Town Council voted 3-2 Monday night to approve Ordinance 756, which amends the town zoning ordinance to add a definition of home improvement center and excludes those stores from the town’s size limit on major retail.
Councilmen Alan Silverstein, Ron Engle, and Rev. Elmer Davis Jr. voted to approve the ordinance; Council President Megan Cook and Member Don Abbatiello voted against.
Supporters said the zoning text change does not approve any specific project, but allows a home improvement center to seek approval from the town council for a particular project.
Opponents said the amendment should be considered during the coming update to the town’s comprehensive plan.
Engle, speaking before the vote, said many of those commenting on the amendment were confused about its effect.
“The purpose of this ordinance is to propose a pen and ink change to create a definition for home improvement center,” he said. “If passed, it would only allow the council to review, through the PUD process, a proposal for a new home improvement center is larger than the maximum 65,000.”
Engle said the current comprehensive plan was started in 2007, approved in 2010, and was intended to cover a 6-year period. The state later extended the plans to ten years and Easton is set to begin updating its plan this year, a process that could take two years.
“It’s too late. We’re already a regional shopping destination,” Engle said of concerns about allowing big box stores.
He said the current plan encourages new retail development in or near existing shopping centers, but “we should then look to existing commercially zoned properties in town. Not to non-commercially zoned properties or properties not in town that we would have to annex.
“There are only two parcels where this can occur,” he said. “The commercial area between Route 50, U-Haul, and Olive Garden clearly is the most attractive commercial area in town.”
Abbatiello agreed Easton was a commercial hub, but said any change involving big box retail stores should wait until after the comprehensive plan is updated.
“Those of you who want to think the town of Easton is still the quaint small town from the past are ignoring reality,” Abbatiello said. “Easton is growing and becoming a hub for commerce on the Mid-Shore.
“The question therefore isn’t whether or not development will come to Easton, the question is what form will it take,” he said. “(W)e currently have a mechanism for answering that question through the comprehensive plan.
“As a result, I think any current proposal should follow the comprehensive plan that is in place,” Abbatiello said. “And I believe that the new comprehensive plan, beginning to take shape this year, should look seriously at where a large home improvement store can go.”
Cook agreed that the comprehensive plan update should come first and said the majority of those who emailed comments supported that idea.
“During the last rewrite, there were roughly 850 people involved which shows that the comprehensive plan process is the correct venue for the community to consider, not just this proposal, … but for the general idea of big box stores within the town of Easton,” Cook said.
Davis noted the comprehensive plan has been amended since its last update in 2010.
“So it is not a plan … that was etched in stone and no one went contrary to what was written. I am of the feeling that this ordinance does not guarantee any business being built in the city of Easton,” he said. “This is just to change some verbiage and language, and I would hope and pray that this be considered, because from an economic point of view, that if it came to fruition, it will afford minorities, people who look like me and other people in the community a job, and I think that’s essential. Economic development is essential.”
Two people spoke Monday night against approving the zoning text change.
Pete Lesher, a former town councilman, said the zoning code should not be changed,
“Easton has a sound rule. And there are good reasons for that rule concerning the location of big boxes in our community,” Lesher said. “I said in my written commentary that the colocation of big boxes with with smaller retailers necessarily has a beneficial effect to those smaller retailers and linking those two in the rule requiring them to be co located, is something that does help our smaller businesses and I’d hate to see that advantage lost in a rule change here.
“The second is really that principle of encouraging redevelopment. I think we do have a sense that Easton is overbuilt with retail space, and while … we don’t have an empty big box, there are … retail spaces in this community that are ripe for redevelopment,” he said. “The rule as it stands encourages redevelopment into those spaces rather than the breaking of new ground for new development.
“We shouldn’t change the rulebook for one potential applicant — that smacks of picking winners and losers,” Lesher said. “And that just doesn’t seem the right way to govern.”
Laurie Forster, a resident of Mulberry Station, urged the council to “stick to the plan.”
“We have a process called the comprehensive plan. I just read the one from 2010 I never thought I’d be doing that,” she said. “And I understand a lot more about the comprehensive plan now that it’s community involvement that really is to drive that plan.
“And we have a saying in our house, stick to the plan. And so I guess I’m asking you to stick to the plan,” Forster said. “The plan does not allow for this size or this type of business in that spot. I won’t debate the effects that it might have on our neighborhood because I know that’s not the issue at hand tonight but I am concerned.”
The town’s current 65,000-square-foot size limit for major retail uses does not include stores that expand, redevelop, or are adjacent to shopping centers approved before Aug. 25, 2004. Ordinance 756 would add “home improvement centers” as a use that is not subject to the size limit.
The Easton Planning and Zoning Commission considered the proposed text amendment at its November meeting and unanimously recommended the town council deny the request. Changes to the town’s size limit on retail stores should only be considered during the upcoming comprehensive plan review, the commission urged.
The town will start its review and update of the comprehensive plan this year, with the update expected to be complete by 2023.
The zoning text amendment, sought by the Gannon Family Limited Partnership, has prompted speculation that Home Depot is again interested in building a store in Easton.
During the town’s Jan. 19 hearing on Ordinance 756, a representative for the family partnership said a home improvement center was interested in purchasing property at U.S. Route 50 and Chapel Road, but would want to build a store larger than the current 65,000-square-foot limit. The partnership then applied for a zoning text amendment to allow for a larger size for home improvement centers.DraftOrd756