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Proposed zoning rules raise community hackles

Planners see flexibility; activists see lack of control

By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

7:14 PM EDT, November 1, 2012

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Howard County planners are pushing new rules that would allow developers to depart from existing zoning in exchange for providing benefits to the community.

The county planning chief said the change was needed to adapt to conditions that have changed since land-use rules were established. But community activists are raising alarms about uncontrolled growth and worry the plan would give developers too much leeway and the administration too much power.

The Department of Planning and Zoning proposes what's called a community enhancement floating district in the more developed eastern part of the county, where no large tracts of open land exist.

Planning Director Marsha S. McLaughlin said the new rules would give developers the "flexibility" to adapt projects to particular neighborhoods without having to change the zoning map.

McLaughlin said the rules, which could still be revised and are subject to County Council approval, would allow "more context-sensitive development, as opposed to a cookie-cutter development."

The proposed amendment to the zoning code runs eight pages and lists a number of community improvements that developers would have to provide, including parks and other open space, transit upgrades and bicycle paths.

Other than a 2-acre minimum and some specific housing requirements — such as the number of units set aside for the moderate-income market — no strict standards for building heights or setbacks from property lines are indicated.

McLaughlin says the lack of specificity is a virtue of the proposed rules, but many community activists see trouble.

Cathy Hudson, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, said the new rules would mean a significant change for the worse in county land use.

"It will completely change the way zoning and planning will be done in the county," Hudson said.

She said the proposed rules did not set clear enough guidelines for development, meaning greater difficulty in controlling growth — and greater difficulty in appealing decisions made by the Zoning Board.

"To give [developers] this open-ended card is very scary," Hudson said. "Why do we have to give developers increasing growth? They bought a piece of property that had a certain zoning. It's a business decision."

Christopher Alleva, administrator for the Howard County Independent Business Association, called the proposal "a big power grab by the administration."

Alleva said that since the rules would give the Department of Planning and Zoning authority to approve projects before the Zoning Board makes a final decision, significant land-use power would be shifted from the Zoning Board and County Council — where the county charter says it belongs.

Council members serve as the Zoning Board.

Marc Norman, a Turf Valley resident who has fought aspects of development there for years, said the county should stick to the current process to revise zoning when land conditions change or if a mistake was made in creating a zoning rule.

If the purpose of the new rules is flexibility, Norman said, the criteria easily could be bent in a developer's favor.

In a recent email to McLaughlin, Norman wrote that "it would appear that the proposed … criteria could [in most cases] be argued either for or against [Zoning Board] approval, depending on the political/financial interest of those involved."

Tom Meachum, a Columbia lawyer whose practice deals chiefly with land use, sees the loosely drawn criteria differently. Under current rules, he said, if a developer proposes a project allowed by right, the public can say very little about it. Either the project meets the standards or it doesn't.

The proposed, more general criteria would give the public more say, not less, Meachum said.

"Because the criteria are broad, that invites a variety of parties to comment on it," Meachum said. "In this case, everything is up for discussion. There's a greater ability for the community to influence development."

McLaughlin also said the new zone is a better approach than having a developer ask for a change in the zoning map for a particular project. In that case, the developer would not have to show why the change was desired or what would be done with the new zoning.

With the community enhancement floating approach, McLaughlin said, "everybody knows what's being proposed. It's clear."

The new "floating" district would not be mapped, but it could be used in a broad area of the eastern portion of the county served by public water and sewer. The area would be the county's sixth floating district. Some have been used hardly at all, while others have been employed just once, as in the case of the "New Town" district — or Columbia.

The zone would be part of a bundle of changes sought by planners to enact PlanHoward 2030, the master plan for growth adopted by the county this year. The plan also includes countywide rezoning, to be completed next year, and a proposed change designed to comply with the Maryland Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act.

The growth-control change is meant to restrict the expansion of subdivisions in rural areas and to concentrate them in already-developed sections. The change would allow owners of land in agricultural preservation areas to sell development rights for projects in the county's eastern, more built-up section. As it stands now, owners of rural preservation land can only sell development rights for projects planned for other rural property.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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