Howard council members look for balance

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."

District 2 Council member Calvin Ball said site visits have helped him visualize how a zoning change would transform the topography of a piece of land.

"There are times where I've gone to sites and spent 30, 40 minutes watching the traffic patterns, meeting with citizens, trying to make sure I understand the rationale for some of the petitioners' requests," he said.

Watson said she sometimes brings her family with her on site visits. She tells her teenagers: "This piece of land wants to be developed, and right now it's a vacant lot.

"They think it's kind of fun," she said.

But all the council members agreed their families will be happy when the comprehensive zoning process is through.

"I would say [my family is] used to seeing me sit on the couch with binders all around me and highlighters in my hand," Watson said.

"I have on many a Saturday morning after breakfast with my husband made him go for a drive to visit a site," Sigaty said.

Terrasa, who has three children ages 10 to 13 and describes her noncouncil job as "travel, baseball, swim team, learning guitar and Rubik's cube with the kids," said she tries to spend as much time with her family during the day. "I have some flexibility in my schedule when we're not having meetings, so I'm trying to take advantage of that," she said.

Ball, an assistant professor at Morgan State University, said balancing work, family and council time has been a challenge.

"Frankly, there are nights or even days where it's summertime, and I'd love to be spending more time with my kids and enjoying the summertime with them and I'm working diligently," said Ball, who has two daughters ages 6 and 10. But, he added, "I'm honored to serve."

Though it's been a long summer, every council member emphasized the importance of doing the comprehensive zoning process right.

"This will be the last chance I get to have this type of impact on [the county]," Terrasa said. "And I take it very seriously. I spend a lot of time on getting it right."

Because the decisions made during comprehensive zoning will determine the use of county land for the next decade, "I think what we really have to do is be as thoughtful and thorough as possible," Sigaty said.

"We as a council want to be well informed before we make important decisions," Watson said. "What follows is making the best decisions for the common good. And that's really what this is about, is deciding what's best for the community."

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