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Residents in western Howard County fight to preserve rural feel

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Most residents in western Howard County want to raise a family surrounded by farmland where they can walk down the street to feed the horses, according to Woodbine resident Glenn Moran.

"I think that's what people have come to know and love about the area," he said.

Moran will be one of more than 100 western Howard County residents expected to attend the April 8 Planning Board hearing to oppose requested zoning for the Woodmont Academy property on Frederick Road in Cooksville.

"I'm absolutely expecting a tremendous turnout," he said.

The Planning Board will host a public hearing on comprehensive zoning requests starting at 6 p.m. on Monday, April 8, at Glenelg High School.

The Woodmont property is currently zoned rural conservation with conditional use permits for educational and retreat facilities.

Through comprehensive zoning, the Woodmont Education Foundation Inc. has asked the property be zoned with the Institutional Overlay District, which is "established to permit community-serving institutional and cultural facilities," according to county zoning regulations.

But the county's Department of Planning and Zoning has instead suggested the Community Center Transition (CCT) zoning, which is intended to serve as a transition from residential to commercial areas.

The Dar-us-Salaam Muslim Community is planning to develop an Islamic Community Center at the site that would include its school and mosque.

Minhaj Hasan, a member of Dar-us-Salaam's board of trustees, said the Woodmont Education Foundation Inc., not Dar-us-Salaam, has requested the zoning change to facilitate development on the property, but the zoning outcome is one factor that will determine whether the Muslim community settles on purchasing the property.

The other primary factor is fundraising, which Hasan said is "going pretty well," although he declined to discuss specific figures.

Paul Skalny, an attorney representing Residents for Responsible Development of Woodmont, argues that neither zoning is appropriate for Woodmont.

The institutional zoning is only allowed on public water and sewer sites and the CCT district is intended to serve as a transition between residential communities and retail centers, he said.

Skalny points out there are no retail centers near the Woodmont property on Frederick Road.

"The CCT zone is supposed to provide for transition and I don't know what it's transitioning," he said.

Local residents have said the size and scope of the proposed project would change the landscape of rural western Howard County.

They formed the nonprofit Residents for Responsible Development of Woodmont to oppose efforts by Dar-us-Salaam to receive conditional uses that were not granted to Woodmont Academy, which closed after the 2010-11 school year.

Between 250 and 280 people attended the group's last meeting at Bushy Park Elementary School in Glenwood, according to Moran, the president of the RRDW executive board.

Moran said the group believes that granting Woodmont the re-zoning could create a domino effect with other properties following in applying for similar zoning.

"It could lead to other development," he said. "We see this as a precedent."

While the opposition to development plans at Woodmont is following opposition to another religious organization's fight to build in western Howard County, attorney Joan Becker said there are few similarities between the two.

The Chin Baptist Mission Church has been attempting to build a 13,800 square foot church at the corner of Hobbs and McKendree roads in Glenwood since 2011, but residents have appealed the county hearing examiner's decision to grant the conditional uses for development.

"They have some similarities, but not as many as you would think," said Becker, who represents the opposition to both projects.

Becker, who has only represented opponents to the Chin Church plan for about the last year, said it's difficult to say whether the Dar-us-Salaam case could follow the same path as the Chin Church and enter a lengthy appeals process.

She expects a resolution on the zoning case to be made by June or July, but said depending upon that decision, the issue could enter the conditional use process, which could take six months to a year.

Becker said the opposition to both projects is institutional because the zoning regulations sought by each religious group are intended to be facilities serving the residential community.

"You usually don't build schools or religious facilities to serve people outside of your community," she said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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