What to know ahead of tonight’s Howard County Council vote

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

After months of debate, discussion and public input, the County Council is set to vote on two major pieces of legislation tonight, the adequate public facilities bills and a bill to regulate mulching practices in the county.

Here’s what to know about the bills, and what’s made them so controversial in the county.

Adequate public facilities ordinance

The first legislative items are two bills meant to update the county’s adequate public facilities ordinance, or APFO, regulations that are meant to ensure that public infrastructure, namely schools and roads, are able to keep pace with population growth.

The update has been years in the making; County Executive Allan Kittleman first established a resident task force to create recommendations for how to update the ordinance in 2015. Since then, debate has continued between residents, officials and developers over how much development should be let into the county, and how to determine when an area has maxed out its building and population capacity.

Resident groups have risen up against what some have called weak regulations on development that they say have led to overcrowded schools. Clad in yellow shirts, protesters have organized rallies outside council meetings and hundreds have publicly testified to voice their opposition.

In recent weeks, officials have introduced a host of amendments to the bills.

Notable changes were proposed in relation to schools and the county’s school capacity test, which determines whether a designated area in the county is open to housing development. An area is “closed” to development if the elementary and middle schools in the region are more than 115 percent of capacity utilization; high schools are not currently included in the test.

Proposed amendments would add high schools to the test, and potentially lower the capacity utilization.

Mulching

The other major piece of legislation before the council tonight is a bill to regulate mulching practices in the county, particularly on agricultural land. Co-sponsored by council members Greg Fox and Mary Kay Sigaty, the bill aims to allow farmers to mulch or compost excess organic waste as part of their practices.

The bill has received a great deal of organized opposition from residents, particularly those in the western portions of the county that are home to the largest amount of farmland. Critics of the bill say it would make way for industrial-scale mulching in the area, which they say would be detrimental to their health and safety.

Meanwhile, farmers in the county say the legislation is necessary to allow them to compost waste on their own land, rather than having to ship it off the premises to be processed.

Like APFO, officials have introduced a range of amendments to the bill, including updates to terminology and an increase in setback requirements for composting facilities from 200 to 300 feet from the property line of a residential lot.

Another amendment included clarifying that compost and natural wood waste recycling facilities may compost for non-commercial use as long as the facilities do not request a state permit. The use area for a natural wood waste facility is also proposed to be cut in half from two acres to one acre.

Outside of the APFO and mulching bills, the council could vote on a bill related to the also-controversial public financing deal for downtown Columbia. Sigaty introduced a bill to expand the downtown Columbia designated development district to include the Toby’s Dinner Theatre property, which has been proposed to be developed into a space for an arts center and affordable housing units as well as the theater.

Other pieces of legislation that the council could vote on include adding veterans as a group to the Equal Business Opportunity Program, approving the purchase of six new buses for the county’s Regional Transportation Agency’s fixed route fleet and approving the school system’s capital budget request for fiscal 2019.

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