After nearly two months of research, more than 80 hours of work and legislative sessions and many sometimes-heated debates, the Howard County Council has passed a final comprehensive zoning package approving zoning changes for property across the county.
The zoning changes, which will remain in effect for about a decade until the next comprehensive zoning process, have the potential to transform the landscape of the county, particularly in the less-developed south and west.
Some of the proposals created significant controversy.
Chief among these hotly debated proposals was a request to re-zone farmland in Fulton, across Route 216 from the Maple Lawn community, as residential property that could accommodate up to 1,365 housing units on 91 acres. Neighbors were opposed to land owner Gene Iager’s plans to develop the plot into a high-density community, citing concerns about the environment, traffic and school overcrowding.
The council voted to grant the Maple Lawn property a combination of mixed-use and low-density residential zoning. The mixed-use zoning will allow for a combination of commercial and residential development in the northern portion of the land parcel, likely close to Route 216. The density of the zone will be capped at 2 residential units per acre, which would result in about 180 units.
Land-use attorney Bill Erskine, who represents Iager, called the zoning decision "development the way we've been doing it for 35 years." The outcome is "half a loaf," he said, although, "it's certainly an improvement on the rural zone."
But Chris Bloor, who along with a group of other Fulton residents had asked the Council for lower-density zoning for the property, said the outcome was what the community wanted. "We didn't want to be unreasonable, but we felt that two houses per acre was equivalent to what the existing Maple Lawn community had, so we felt it was appropriate for our area," he said.
Members of a community surrounding the historic Savage Mill had similar worries about a proposed townhome development on a 5-acre parcel of wooded land next to the mill. The Council created a new zoning for the lot, R-H-ED, to address community concerns about excessive density and environmental damage. Council Chair Jen Terrasa, who represents Savage, was able to get a promise from Bozzuto Group, the developer, to put a cap on the development at 35 units.
In Elkridge, the Council voted to give transit-oriented development zoning to a parcel of land that includes the Rosa Bonheur cemetery. The zoning, which is awarded only to land within 3500 feet of a MARC train station, encourages development of combined office and high-density residential centers.
Some citizens were concerned about the fate of the cemetery if it were given high-density zoning and requested that the Council place certain restrictions on the cemetery plot. Council member Courtney Watson, who ultimately voted against the amendment, said the Council’s law office had instructed them that the cemetery would be protected by Maryland state laws.
“We feel confident that the existing laws will do what it is that the citizens have requested that we do with the pet cemetery portion,” she said.
Several requests dealt with farming and the rural western portion of the county.
A text amendment that defined farming and put limitations on the amount of livestock non-farmers in the county have a right to own brought out dozens of concerned citizens, many of them horse owners or 4-H members, to testify at a public hearing earlier this month.
The council voted to allow more than one animal per acre on lots between 40,000 feet and 3 acres, provided the livestock owner submits nutrient management, soil and water conservation plans.
In Daisy, Woodbine and Lisbon, residents were concerned by a request that would give a “BRX,” or business-rural crossroads, zoning to land near their homes, a proposal made to encourage moderate business development in these regions. The council voted to remove Daisy from the BRX zoning and to prohibit certain uses, such as drive-throughs and multi-plexes.
The council also approved residential chicken-keeping in zones where it is permitted as an accessory use but required coops in the Planned Service Area to have a setback of at least 50 feet from a neighbor’s home and 15 feet from all property lines.
After voting through the final bill, council members took turns reflecting on the process and thanking the public and their staffs for their work and input throughout the past two months.
Terrasa said she was “grateful” to have been a part of the experience. “It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape the community for the future in the way we’ve been able to do with comprehensive zoning,” she said.