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New Town Zoning next big Columbia issue

It took nearly a decade, but the plan to redefine Columbia's Town Center as a true downtown by adding more than 13 million square feet of retail, commercial, residential and civic uses is well on its way to fruition.

And now that it's off the ground, Howard County officials and Columbia activists have turned their attention to the next major issue facing the nearly 50-year-old planned community: New Town Zoning.

"It's a huge project; it's almost a daunting project, " said Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia resident for more than 40 years and one of Columbia's representatives on the County Council.

More than 14,720 acres of Columbia is zoned New Town, which is approximately 90 percent of the land that makes up Columbia. New Town Zoning is a distinct zoning category that allows each individual property within its bounds to be developed for any kind of use, except for heavy manufacturing and mobile homes. This kind of extreme flexibility is different from traditional zoning, which designates more restrictive uses for large swaths of land.

In order to keep the system balanced, there are a series of mechanisms in place; they include a master guiding document encompassing all properties and a series of individual plans for each property, both of which limit uses.

New Town Zoning also created an independent body to monitor zoning changes. This body, often called the gatekeeper, is intended to make sure the plan is being implemented properly; it is the first to review changes that deviate from the original plans.

This system is ideal for creating a planned community out of farmland, which is precisely why Columbia founder James Rouse created it more than 50 years ago and made an extension of the Rouse Company – called Howard Research and Development – the gatekeeper. But now that Columbia is Maryland's second largest city, and with Rouse and his company no longer in the picture, serious concerns about the system have come to the forefront.

"Where we are today, people are afraid that our New Town Zoning is going to fall apart," Sigaty said. "The flexibility is totally scary. You want flexibility because that's what built this community. But at the same time what you also want is the articulation of a plan."

Marsha McLaughlin, director of the County's Department of Planning and Zoning, agrees that now is the time to evaluate the system.

"There have been relatively no changes in New Town Zoning," she said. "Columbia is approaching its 50th birthday. It seems like now is the time to take a look as Columbia evolves."

Redefining the gatekeeper

On Monday, concerns about how the zoning could effect the future of Columbia was the topic of a public meeting hosted by the Howard County Citizens Association. At the meeting, HCCA presented details of its New Town Zoning report, which identifies issues and recommends changes.

The chief issue, the citizen group concluded, is redefining the role of the gatekeeper.

"The biggest problem that we came across was simply the lack of an official gatekeeper," said Brian England, a Columbia business owner and committee member.

HCCA isn't the only group to come to this conclusion.Last month, the Columbia Association, a large nonprofit that maintains many of Columbia's amenities, presented its own report on New Town Zoning to its Board of Directors. The first recommendation in the report states that the current system is "inappropriate in the current context of property ownership and development in Columbia and should be revisited."

The current gatekeeper is the original gatekeeper, Howard Research and Development. HRD was established in the 1960s as the master developer of the planned community, and at one point owned all of the land in Columbia. Because of this, HRD was cast in a prominent role in the New Town Zoning regulations, a designation it still holds today despite significant changes within the company and Columbia.

"When the regulations were created, HRD owned all of Columbia. ... However, since ownership is now dispersed, the role of HRD has changed from overall developer and owner of land in Columbia to one of many developers and land owners," the CA report states.

One particular issue identified by the CA report is HRD's role in proposed changes within New Town Zoning. If a non-residential land owner wants to make a change to their property that is not permitted under the original plans, he or she must receive approval from HRD before moving forward with a change, which would include seeking approval from either the county Planning Board or Zoning Board, depending on the change.

Complicating the issue is that HRD, a former Rouse Company subsidiary, is now an affiliated subsidiary of the Howard Hughes Corp., which is the primary land owner in downtown Columbia and the developer leading its redevelopment. This means a private corporation affiliated with a local developer is overseeing proposed zoning changes from other local developers.

This, according to McLaughlin, is highly unusual.

"It seems like we need to find a way that other property owners can come forward and make requests," she said.

There is a precedent for revising the gatekeeper issue. In 2009 and 2010, the county council approved amendments to New Town Zoning that allowed land owners within Columbia's downtown and nine village centers to bypass the gatekeeper and go right to the county.

Revisiting that precedent, along with a litany of other issues, will likely be part of the county Department of Planning and Zoning's comprehensive review of New Town Zoning, which will begin in 2015.

And while there is wide-spread agreement that changes need to be made, there is also some agreement that New Town Zoning should, in some form, remain intact.

"I think the strength of our New Town Zoning is that we can, within our code, create design guidelines, development guidelines, and with more criteria than [traditional] zoning can," Sigaty said. "There's a lot of pride in Columbia. It's decidedly different. There are really wonderful things that people want to hold on to."

The CA report states: "it remains important to coordinate the overall design and planning for Columbia. ... Consideration should be given to the question of how the founding characteristics will be retained, enhanced or modified as it evolves over its next 50 years."

Sigaty said the comprehensive review process, which will have a lot of public input, needs to be aspirational.

"As we talk about the planned community that we live in, and the desire for it to remain planned, we have to describe what that looks like," she said. "Once we can describe what that looks like, the zoning will be built to make that happen."

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