Council concerned proposed zoning may be too flexible

A proposed zoning district that has residents concerned it grants too much freedom to developers is generating the same reaction from the Howard County Council.

"It's so carte blanche, I'm just concerned about how open-ended it is," said Republican council member Greg Fox at the Dec. 20 legislative work session.

The council met to discuss five pieces of legislation up for vote Jan. 7, including the controversial Community Enhancement Floating (CEF) zoning district.

Proposed by the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, the CEF district is intended to allow property owners more flexibility in developing property by allowing zoning changes for parcels of land as small as two acres in some areas of the county.

Marsha McLaughlin, Director of the Planning and Zoning Department, said Dec. 20 the zone was drafted and proposed at this time to allow the council another tool as it enters comprehensive rezoning.

"We wanted you [Zoning Board] to have a tool to be able to say 'We agree that maybe the current zoning isn't the highest and best use of the property, but we don't want to give you a blank check. Go talk to the community and come back with a CEF proposal that is the right solution,' " McLaughlin said.

The five-member county council also serves as the Zoning Board.

Council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said the new zone puts "a lot of faith in the zoning board."

"It really doesn't give us a lot of the criteria that we have in other cases, but it's also designed to give us some flexibility," she said. "It's a double-edged sword. The question is are you comfortable with that much flexibility given a new elected zoning board?"

Council chair Jen Terrasa, a Columbia Democrat, has filed an amendment that adds an initial Zoning Board public meeting to solicit community input.

Other amendments to bill include expanding the minimum acreage from two to five and eliminating the density exchange option.

Addressing concerns that the new zone could be a violation of County Charter, deputy county solicitor Paul Johnson told the council that the County Office of Law has no indication that the council is in violation.

"It has been the same interpretation for the last 20 years," he said, referring to a article in the code that was added in 1994 through referendum..

Susan Gray, a land-use attorney and Highland resident, argued during a Dec. 17 public hearing that the proposed zoning district violates the County Charter by illegally moving rezoning map authority from the County Council to the Zoning Board.

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