The Howard County Council faces a busy voting session this week before the August recess, taking up the master plan for growth, several charter changes and whether to allow voters to consider term limits for newly elected council members.
The master plan, PlanHoward 2030, is a guide to issues that include environmental protection, housing, transportation, and the redevelopment of U.S. 1 and U.S. 40. Years in the works by the council, Planning Board, Department of Planning and Zoning, consultants and citizens, the nearly 200-page proposal takes stock of changes since General Plan 2000, updates that document and generally maintains existing policies.
Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of planning and zoning, has said the proposal is "not radically different" from earlier plans, which may help explain why it's had a relatively smooth ride since it was introduced to the council early last month.
There is somewhat more emphasis placed on redevelopment of U.S. 1, an 11-mile stretch along the county's east end, but revitalizing that road and U.S. 40, the Baltimore National Pike, were included in earlier plans.
The plan does recommend slowing the pace at which land can be subdivided in the rural west side of the county. It drops the number of lots that can be created each year from 150 to 100. The housing lot allocation system also would change, with allotments made in areas defined by five categories rather than 10. The change is meant to simplify the system and put most allocations in "growth and revitalization" areas.
That includes the U.S. 1 corridor. About 90 percent of those 21 square miles are built on, and much of the balance is already slated for new homes and businesses. McLaughlin said some adjustments have to be made to incentive programs and zoning rules for that area to get the right development mix, as office and retail construction has not kept pace with new housing.
A consultant's report completed late last year as part of research for the plan mentioned tax breaks, matching grants for property improvements, relocation assistance and low-cost loans among possible incentives that could be used.
Two short amendments had already been proposed to PlanHoward, and several more were in the works before the Tuesday filing deadline, two days before the voting session on Thursday.
Councilwoman Courtney Watson of Ellicott City said she had drafted an amendment to expand historic preservation efforts, including updating an inventory of historically valuable properties and establishing a plan to encourage new uses for renovated buildings.
"We've lost a lot of them to development," Watson said.
Members of the council had discussed in a work session potential ways to revise the master plan to buy the county a bit more time to meet the requirements of a state growth-control law adopted by the Maryland General Assembly this year.
As it stands, the plan designates the boundaries of areas that are: served by public sewer; planned for public sewer service; not planned for sewer but include rural villages and large-lot subdivisions; and not planned for sewers and restricted from development. Under the law, if the designations are not made by Dec. 31, the county loses its right to approve anything but small subdivisions with septic systems or any subdivision in a growth area that has public sewer service.
Councilman Calvin Ball of Columbia said delaying the decision until Dec. 31 "seemed worth more discussion," but he had not yet proposed an amendment to do that.
Ball's resolution on council term limits is expected to be considered for a vote. The measure would give voters in November the chance to answer a referendum question on whether to change the limit for newly elected council members from three four-year terms to four.
Ball said he introduced the measure to put the council term cycle in line with the county executive, who is limited to two four-year terms.
Howard is among only five Maryland jurisdictions — the others are Anne Arundel, Carroll, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties — that limit terms of either council members or county commissioners. Five counties — Baltimore County, Harford, Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Howard — limit their executives to two four-year terms.
Watson said the council heard comment for and against term limits in a public hearing this month, in emails and letters. She said she's inclined to support term limits but had not yet decided how to vote on putting this county charter change to a referendum in the fall.
The council is expected to act on several other charter changes, including eight that were recommended by the 15-member Charter Review Commission after months of meetings and three public hearings. These include rules of legislative procedure, recording new laws, handling public records and handling grant funds.
The commission's 13-page report says the most discussion emerged among members at public hearings over a change in the rules governing petitions to put questions to public referendums. As the charter is now written, a question can be put on the ballot with signatures from 5 percent of registered voters, with a minimum of 1,500 signatures and a maximum of 5,000. The proposed change would eliminate the 1,500 floor and 5,000 signature ceiling.
The report says "a percentage would allow the requirement to change as the population changes, and a 5% requirement, currently 5,068 people, is very close to the current 5,000 maximum currently required."
Also on Thursday, the council is expected to vote to designate Ellicott City as a "sustainable community" under a state law passed in 2010 meant to combine and simplify two earlier programs designed to help communities improve properties and attract business and residents.
Steve Lafferty, director of special projects for the Department of Planning and Zoning, said once the sustainable community application is approved by the state, business people and other property owners in the designated area could apply for aid in the form of grants and tax credits to upgrade their buildings. He said sidewalk improvements along state roads such as Ellicott City's Main Street could also be eligible for financial aid.
If Ellicott City's application is approved, it would join nine cities and towns in seven counties that have been named sustainable communities, including the cities of Cumberland, Westminster and Aberdeen.