(Courtesy Photo)

By Ralph E. Moore Jr.
Special to the AFRO

With a big dispute in northwest Baltimore, the facts are these: a lot at 2600 Gwynn Falls Parkway has been unused for 10 years, a gasoline station previously occupied that location, an elementary school is located nearby, thousands of traffic citations have been issued for vehicles passing by the site and the owner of the lot wants to build a Checkers Restaurant.  However, the Maryland Department of the Environment has called for an environmental review into an issue raised with the previous use, the 7th District City Councilman, James Torrence supports the surrounding community’s position and the residential community surrounding Gwynn Falls and Tioga parkways is very strongly opposed to another fast food restaurant with a drive-thru in their neighborhood. 

“It’s just not fair,” Mary Hughes of the Panway Neighborhood Improvement Association says.

The issue came before the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, Jan. 26, with James Fields chairing the hearing.  A sampling from 200 community residents’ letters of opposition was read into the record by Liv Ndou, Acting Director of BMZA.  Then members from Panway, the Concerned Citizens of Greater Mondawmin and the Public Safety Commission for Western District offered compelling facts and figures in the testimony.  First Councilman Torrence said, “There have been 17 accidents in three blocks of the proposed construction in January 2021 alone.” Monalisa Diallo declared, “In the past 18 months there have been four crashes into my house a block away!”  Convincingly, Carolyn Carey posted photographs of accidents at the site: an overturned car, a vehicle that had fiercely rear-ended another.  Based on critical traffic issues, the community made a credible case for the drive-thru restaurant not being built in their neighborhood. Residents cited traffic speeds averaging 40-50 miles per hour (and 70 mph a resident testified) where the speed limit is 25 mph near a school. The consensus was that Checkers would attract customers hurrying to get to and from the restaurant on an already dangerously fast strip. And, additionally, at issue are the challenges accompanying fast food consumption: obesity and high blood pressure.  

At the Jan. 26 zoning hearing (BMZA 2020-133), available on the City’s Charm City TV website, Joseph Woolman, lawyer for Iftikhar Ahmad, the owner of the property, appeared. Woolman kept narrowing the board’s focus onto the appropriateness of the drive-thru attached to the property’s construction. His tactic was to have the board ignore the evidence of neighborhood opposition, the photographs and the facts presented on excessive speeding, multiple traffic accidents and child safety concerns. The board chairman agreed with him and the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals ruled against the community giving Checkers approval “with conditions.” Essentially, the ruling will require that an actual finished site plan be reviewed by two departments—Transportation and Planning. 

Despite the convincing evidence and the strong opposition, if the communities lose, they can appeal the BMZA decision to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.  According to Becky Witt of the Community Law Center, the court would need to hear that the drive-thru would make the area worse.” Activist Mary Hughes has expressed to the State Department of the Environment great concern about underground oil storage tanks not removed from the previous use.  Due to her persistence, the Maryland Department of the Environment “will require an investigation and a report of findings from the owner.”

Former City Council President Lawrence Bell also actively stands with the community in opposition to the Checkers and questions the city’s development process based on racial fairness.