MoCo planners want to keep this land rural, but its owners want to develop it. Photos by the author.
Six years after a bypass carried traffic out of town, Burtonsville’s once-thriving village center is now 70% vacant. Everyone agrees that it needs more people to survive, where new development should occur to house those people is up for debate.
"The problem with Burtonsville,” says Tom Norris in a lengthy phone interview, is that “there’s no residential core. There’s no people there. There’s zero apartments, zero townhouses, zero highrises. That’s what it needs to be a town.”
Norris owns 11 acres of land along Old Columbia Pike behind the Burtonsville Crossing Shopping Center, which has been losing tenants for years and is now mostly empty. Pepino’s Italian Kitchen, one of the few who stayed behind, has a big banner reading “We’re Still Here.”
The way to get business back to the area, Norris says, is more people. Norris and adjacent property owners have formed a group called the Committee to Save Burtonsville. They say that pooling their land, which totals 40 acres, and building as many as 230 homes on it could be “the solution” for Burtonsville’s ailing village center.
Meanwhile, county planners have their own ideas. Next week, they’re submitting a plan to the County Council called the Burtonsville Crossroads Neighborhood Plan, which would allow property owners in the village center to build housing and offices alongside their shops.
Burtonsville Crossing could be redeveloped as a new, mixed-use neighborhood. Planner Kristin O’Connor told Colesville Patch last month that owner Edens, which is building a large mixed-use development in Fairfax County called the Mosaic District, is open to the idea. The plan could generate as many as 600 new homes in the area, but many properties including Norris’s would remain under Rural Cluster zoning, which allows just one house per 5 acres.
Norris isn’t convinced that new homes will get built at Burtonsville Crossing anytime soon. He accuses the county for perpetuating a “false representation” of his land. “It’s obvious to the most uneducated person . . . that this 40 acres is no longer in the rural area,” he says. “It’s surrounded by two highways and shopping centers and four-story office buildings.”
A petition supporting the concept has 52 signatures and shopkeepers at Burtonsville Crossing are on board, says Norris. “We want Burtonsville to be developed and look nice. We want Burtonsville to look like Maple Lawn!” he says, referring to the New Urbanist planned community being built a few miles north in Howard County.
One of two proposals for how the land could be developed. Image from the Committee to Save Burtonsville.
Nonetheless, previous attempts to have the land rezoned for condominiums and senior housing on his property have been met with substantial opposition from the community. To Norris, they’re holding Burtonsville back. “These planners and anti-growth zealots have ruined the town,” he says. “They’re making it seem like everybody wants a big field next to the big shopping center.”
Residents say that big field helps protect the nearby Patuxent River, whose Rocky Gorge Reservoir provides drinking water for 650,000 people in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. “People came here for the woods, the land,” says Don Chamberlin, who lives on Dustin Road. “They have very stringent building requirements and they accept that to protect the water supply.”
Chamberlin and his neighbor Jim Putman are driving me down the narrow, twisty roads that serve the fewer than 100 homes located north of the village center. They’re part of the Patuxent Watershed Protective Association, formed by residents living near the reservoir. The group has opposed other developments that they fear could hurt the water supply, and they feel the same about Norris’s plan.
They worry the development could cause runoff and increase the potential for a sewer failure polluting the river, which would be compounded by 230 new homes connecting to the sewer system. Last summer, a ruptured pipe in Baltimore County dumped millions of gallons of sewage into the Patapsco River.
"You gotta have a lot of driveways and rooftops” in a development like the one Norris proposes, notes Putman. “Just think of the auto pollutants.”
The land drops over 200 feet before reaching the Patuxent, meaning that any refuse or pollutants would roll right into the river. The construction of the Burtonsville Bypass, Chamberlin notes, has already overwhelmed local streams with runoff. And once the river is fouled, he says, it’s hard to undo.
"You cannot unpollute a reservoir,” says Chamberlin. “They move very slowly. The easiest way to solve this damn problem is not to create it.”
Besides, they argue, Norris’s plan won’t provide enough customers to turn around a 70% vacancy rate in Burtonsville. “The primary cause of business going away was the [bypass],” says Chamberlin. “You are no longer a pass-through. You must have something to make people come.”
Chamberlin and Putman are satisfied with the results of the Burtonsville Crossroads plan, having been involved throughout the planning process. ““There were times I got impatient ‘cause it went so slow,” says Chamberlin. “But they did a professional job, and they were persuaded by the same science I used.”
Norris isn’t convinced, saying the PWPA is anti-development. “They would link up with Stuart Rochester’s group,” he says, referring to the local civic activist who passed away in 2009, “and just block any development, any housing, everything was no, no, no. This group is just hanging in there and they’d come in and say ‘You have to protect the reservoir.’”
"People need jobs, merchants need customers, communities need tax revenue,” he adds. “If a town doesn’t have a residential core, it’s not a town.”
Many Burtonsville residents point to Maple Lawn, being built a few miles north, as what they’d like their town to become.
Nonetheless, Chamberlin insists that Burtonsville can redevelop without encroaching on the reservoir. “We all want to see Burtonsville succeed. But there’s an environmental price we cannot pay,” he says. “To propose that the only solution for Burtonsville is to harm the water supply makes no sense to me.”
The County Council will hold a public hearing on the Burtonsville Crossroads Neighborhood Plan next Thursday, September 20 at 7:30pm. After that, the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee will meet throughout October to study the plan in further detail.