A Howard County Planning Board meeting stretched on for nearly three hours Thursday night, as members discussed a six-item agenda that included shorter setbacks for new houses along Resort Road in Ellicott City's Turf Valley development and the removal of a handful of trees at The Mall in Columbia.
The Turf Valley decision generated the most debate, with three nearby residents offering their thoughts on the project.
Developers hope to build 48 single family houses on Resort Road, which winds its way along the northern portion of the Turf Valley resort, hugging Interstate 70 at some points, before dipping down to connect with Marriottsville Road.
The new neighborhood would be part of the Villages at Turf Valley, a development that includes single family homes, villa homes and townhouses, according to builder Keelty Homes' website.
About one-third of the houses, according to plans presented to the board, would back up to Resort Road. To keep noise from nearby I-70 out, the back of the homes will help form a brick sound barrier.
To make the design work, setbacks along the road have been reduced from 30 to 6 feet. Renderings show a sidewalk separating the sound barriers from the paved portion of Resort Road on the other side.
Developer Louis Mangione, whose family owns Turf Valley, called the sound barriers a creative way of dealing with issues of space, noise and how to improve the new neighborhood's view.
"It's taken a long time to get to this point," he told the Planning Board. "We were given a charge of making it look good; I think we've done that."
Neighbors Frank Martin and Marc Norman worried about the safety of people living in homes so close to the road.
"If there's a cascading car or a big truck, it will crash into the house," Martin said.
Both also argued that the reduced space for building homes was the result of developer design; not an inherent lack of land.
"This is not about the number of units in Turf Valley. This is not about the style or aesthetics of how the developer and his partners want to build their houses," said Norman, a longtime opponent of Turf Valley development. "What this is about is violating the sanctity of the county regulations for minimum setback, minimum lot size and justifying it through a self-induced hardship."
But Sang Oh, a lawyer for the Turf Valley project, said the zoning regulations there were created to be flexible. "It's your determination" whether a shorter setback would be appropriate, he told the Planning Board.
Turf Valley resident Helen Carey said she and her neighbors didn't mind the sound wall plans.
"I've walked the roads, I've watched these sound walls be built. They're not just regular sound walls -- I find them attractive," she said.
In her community, she added, "there’s really enthusiasm about Resort Road and what’s happening there."
Planning Board members voted unanimously to approve the plans for Villages at Turf Valley.
"It results in a better design than would be allowed with strict compliance with the criteria," explained board chair Josh Tzuker. "If people do not want to buy homes that are incorporated into a sound wall, then they will not buy homes incorporated into a sound wall."
"I think it’s time that the county really face the idea that we have a lot of housing along highways. I think this is an attempt to try something that might be innovative and might be a different way of dealing with this kind of property," said member Phil Engelke.
Another item that attracted testimony Thursday night was Chapelgate, a proposed development, across from Turf Valley Towne Square, of 134 townhouses and a new sanctuary for Marriottsville's Chapelgate Presbyterian Church.
The church, which owns the property, is hoping to obtain a community enhancement floating zone designation -- a new, flexible zoning category designed to give developments a chance for approval outside the once-a-decade comprehensive zoning process -- but some residents of a neighboring community on Albeth Road have fought the change.
Earlier this year, the Zoning Board, which consists of the members of the County Council sitting as a zoning authority, sent the case back to the Planning Board after residents complained that Planning Board members had not taken comments from the county's Design Advisory Panel into account because they had not been included in a packet prepared by the Department of Planning and Zoning.
Stu Kohn, who serves as president of the Howard County Citizens Association, said he was disappointed by the omission, and pointed out that the Design Advisory Panel's recommendations are part of a set of criteria the Planning Board is required to consider.
"The citizens need to be informed as to what is going on and the rules need to be followed," he said Thursday night.
But Planning Board members said they had been aware of the design comments, though they hadn't been included in the official packet, and that their decision remained unswayed. They voted unanimously to re-approve the project.
"These were not secret issues that we never got to hear," board member Jacqueline Easley said.
Other decisions approved Thursday by Planning Board members:
• An expansion of the by-right permissions in the B-1 business zoning district to allow for commercial schools. The request was made by C. Godfrey Garvey, who rents property to a driving school. A Department of Planning and Zoning report pointed out that the B-1 district already allows for similar uses, including nursery schools, museums and public and private colleges, as a matter of right.
• Changes to two proposed office buildings in Maple Lawn's midtown district. One building will add a new floor, for a total height of three stories (four stories is the maximum height in the district) and the second will shrink in size by 1,053 square feet.
• The removal of four trees in a public plaza at the Mall in Columbia. Three of the trees are in front of Maggiano's restaurant and the fourth sits in front of Seasons 52. Restaurant owners said the trees are blocking views of their signs and harming business, and proposed relocating them to the parking lot.
• The addition of the Patapsco Heritage Greenway to PlanHoward 2030, Howard County's general plan. Adopting the organization's master plan will help cement the area's designation as Maryland's thirteenth heritage area, greenway representatives said.
All Planning Board votes were unanimous Thursday night.