Proposed zoning district worries county residents

A proposed zoning regulation is drawing criticism from county residents, who argue it gives developers too much freedom to develop small pieces of land while limiting the community's ability to appeal the developers' plans.

The Community Enhancement Floating (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 Howard County.

Use of the zoning district, currently being considered by the County Council, would only be allowed in residential zones served by public water and sewer, which eliminates about 60 percent of the county, according to Marsha McLaughlin, county director of planning and zoning. Her department proposed the new zoning district.

Columbia, along with areas zoned mixed use, planned golf course community and industrial, are also excluded, McLaughlin said.

Ellicott City resident Lisa Markovitz, president of the Normandy Heights Improvement Association, contended the new zoning grants developers too much freedom for development because it includes no regulations governing density or building height requirements.

"There are no requirements whatsoever; it's completely customizable at planning time," she said.

There are no height requirements included in the regulation because building heights would depend on the neighborhood the zoning is planned for, according to McLaughlin.

The regulation does exclude night clubs, bulk retail stores, automotive repair shops and commercial communication towers, among a total of 21 excluded uses.

Residential development, along with office and other employment uses, are allowed, McLaughlin said.

Markovitz also argued that the community will have less opportunity to appeal if they oppose any development under this regulation, because the criteria are so subjective.

"You're just left with having to trust the current and future board will care what the public thinks when they have no recourse," she said.

Former Columbia Association Board member Russ Swatek, in a letter to the editor of this newspaper, argued that the new zone, once approved, offers "almost no basis for any citizen opposition since CEF allows almost anything." He also contended the bill is "is being rushed with short public notice right before comprehensive rezoning with subjective, unquantifiable wording."

Cathy Hudson, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, voiced similar complaints, saying that because there are no defined criteria for approving the new zone, approval would be in the "eye of the beholder" — dependent on the zoning board's opinion.

But McLaughlin said the CEF zoning has nine criteria for acceptance that could be challenged by the public — more opportunity to challenge the zoning's approval than with other floating districts, such as planned senior community (PSC) and business rural (BR), she said.

"I actually think there's a lot more to challenge," McLaughlin said.

The county Planning Board unanimously approved the regulation earlier this month, and the County Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed zoning Monday, Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the George Howard Building, in Ellicott City.

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