County Council members listen as a citizen speaks during a comprehensive zoning hearing Monday, July 15, at the George Howard Building. (Photo by Nate Pesce / July 12, 2013)

It was the afternoon of July 1, and the Howard County Council was poring over a pile of amendments to CB32-2013, the bill on a topic that has consumed most of its time and energy for a month and a half: comprehensive zoning.

A council member mused that reading through all the amendments could take hours. Then Courtney Watson, who represents District 1, spoke up, "We'll stay here until 3 a.m. if we have to!"

The council didn't stay in work session until the early morning hours — it had a scheduled legislative session later that evening — but it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that, lately, council members have been burning the midnight oil.

Comprehensive zoning is "one of the most labor-intensive things that we have done in seven years," Watson said.

And it takes a toll on council members' free time and family lives.

"My wife hates it," Council member Greg Fox said, "and I think she'd be comfortable with me saying so."

The process comes only once every eight to 10 years, and generally follows an update of the county's general plan. The last comprehensive zoning was completed in 2004.

Normally, the council, functioning in its capacity as the Zoning Board, will only consider rezoning requests if there has been a mistake or a significant change in the character of an area that would warrant rezoning.

During the comprehensive zoning process, however, any Howard County property owner can request rezoning of his or her land for any reason.

That's a lot to consider: The text amendments to this year's bill alone are 494 pages long.

It's been keeping the council members busier than usual.

According to Council Administrator Sheila Tolliver, the council so far has spent more than 62 hours on the bill, in a total of two legislative sessions, seven public hearings and 13 work sessions. There are three additional work sessions planned before the council plans to take a final vote on the legislation July 25.

But the time the council spends meeting in the George Howard Building is only a part of the total time council members have devoted to the comprehensive zoning bill. They've invested hours outside of their official obligations by visiting sites, talking to constituents and reading over documents.

"This has been a complex process — although not necessarily bad — it's just complex," Council Vice Chair Mary Kay Sigaty, who represents District 4, said. "The opportunity to actually sit down, and think about what you're doing and look at big-picture areas is what I've been doing in my 'down time.' "

Watson said she works in meetings with constituents around her schedule with the council and her full-time job at a regional insurance firm — which means Saturday at lunchtime and in the evenings after work.

"The bulk of the work, though, for me, happens at night between 8 and midnight," she added. "That's when I sit down and go over every piece of testimony that was given or submitted by email, and I highlight the points that the citizens are making ... And I do that every night, probably four or five nights a week."

District 5 Council member Greg Fox, who's also the director of utility services for an energy company, said he's been working nights and weekends, too.

"I've been up 'til all hours of the night at points," he said, and, "I think there were at least two weekends this past month that I was in Saturday and Sunday all day."

Council Chair Jen Terrasa, who represents District 3, said she's made an effort to reach out to as many constituents as she can using her favorite method: gathering community members around a map of proposed zoning changes and asking for their input.

"I probably have a reputation for always bringing a map everywhere I go," Terrasa said. At a recent neighborhood meeting, she rolled out a zoning map on a constituent's living room carpet, "and we had a good time," she said. "We looked through everything, talked about how this might impact them, what restrictions they'd like to see."