Opposition seemed to be the theme of the night at Monday's Howard County Council public hearing, where hundreds showed up to voice their opinions — many of them negative — about bills covering a special taxing district in Laurel, the county's adequate public facilities ordinance, or APFO, and mulching on rural land.
So many people signed up to give testimony at the hearing, 136 in total, that council Chairman Jon Weinstein announced testimonies would be capped at 15 people each for the APFO and mulching bills and that the rest would be allowed time at a continuation hearing on Sept. 11, following the council's August recess. This action effectively tabled both controversial bills.
The first item to get significant attention was a bill regarding the creation of a special taxing district in Laurel as part of a tax incremental financing deal, or TIF, for a proposed 64-acre development near the Laurel Park racetrack and MARC station. The county must create the special taxing district in order to freeze any future tax gains from the development and direct that money to fund the effort.
The project, which is being developed by track owner Stronach Group, includes construction of approximately 1,000 residential units, 127,000 square feet of retail space, 650,000 square feet of office space and two parking garages with 350 spaces each, according to the bill. If approved, construction for the project would begin in 2018, with a slated completion year of 2025, Deputy Director of Finance Rafiu Ighile said during the meeting.
Establishment of the special taxing area would allow the county to issue bonds to developers to help finance public infrastructure improvements, such as storm drains, roads and sidewalks, that come with constructing new residential or commercial space.
Columbia resident Christiana Rigby, who is also running for the District 3 council seat in 2018, testified that she did not support the TIF, as she believes the county's transit system is not adequate for the increased number of residents the development would bring.
"It's not the right project, right place or right time. A thousand units is incredibly dense for that area, especially considering our public transit system in Howard County and our connection to the region needs significant investment prior to the development of additional units," Rigby said during the meeting.
Laurel resident Rebecca Niburg testified that she didn't believe upgrading the MARC station from a flag stop to a limited use station, with three stops in the morning and three in the evening, would greatly benefit residents, but would instead merely increase traffic along Route 1. The proposed area would be designated as a Transit Oriented Development District, which aims to encourage mixed-use office and residential development with access to nearby transportation.
"Putting more people on this train, especially when you've got six stops throughout the day, is not actually a transit solution. It doesn't help anybody," Niburg said. "We've been waiting for a plan for Route 1. This is not a plan, it's a nod to developers."
Also on the agenda was discussion of the adequate public facilities ordinance bill , which aims to help the county mitigate issues caused by development in the area, including how to ensure public schools can manage the increased number of students in classrooms.
A key concern for the people who were able to give testimony was the stipulation in the bill that allows a school to be "open" to neighboring development if it is 115 percent below program capacity. The bill only includes this test for elementary and middle schools, not high schools, something residents also expressed disagreement with.
"Council members: when was the last time you could spend 115 percent of the funds in your bank account?" Waverly Elementary School PTA President Kelly Balchunas said during the meeting. "It's a ridiculous notion. One hundred percent is 100 percent. It is for me, it is for your constituents in this room and it should be for each and every one of you and developers too."
The night ended on a tense note, as the room turned its attention to CB60, which would allow mulching practices on agricultural preservation easement land as an accessory to a tree farm. The bill aims to allow farmers to mulch or compost excess organic waste as part of their practices and to establish a conditional use zoning category for compost and natural wood waste recycling facilities that receive Maryland Department of Environment permits.
Several moments of testimony turned into near shouting matches between residents and council members, in particular Dayton Rural Preservation Society President John Tegeris, who spoke out against the bill, and bill co-sponsor Councilman Greg Fox, who each accused the other of misleading the public about the facts of CB60.
Tegeris testified about his concerns regarding potential danger from increased truck traffic on rural roads.
"I think the most important issue facing us is that we feel leadership has been dismissive of the safety and health concerns," Tegeris said.
Many of those who testified spoke in regards to violations by Oak Ridge Farm owner Erich Bonner, whose property is in Woodbine. Residents testified that Bonner has been doing industrial mulching practices for years with little action taken by the Department of Planning and Zoning to halt the operations.
Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, the bill's other co-sponsor, responded to these complaints by saying that Bonner is an outlying "bad actor" in the county, whose actions are not reflective of the larger farming community in Howard. Valdis Lazdins, director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, also said that the department now has the evidence it needed to take action against Bonner, and that the county and the farmer are headed to court.
Woodbine resident, farmer and District 5 council candidate Keith Ohlinger said he and other supporters of the bill are signed up to speak and will do so in September.
The continuation public hearing will take place on Sept. 11 at 6 p.m., and residents can still add their names to the list of those who wish to testify. If not everyone is able to speak at that public hearing, it will continue on Sept. 18.