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Howard council passes Route 1 tax credit program

The Howard County Council on Monday passed a tax credit program that officials have called "another tool in the toolbox" to encourage revitalization  along the Route 1 corridor. 

The initiative, which passed unanimously, creates an opportunity for Route 1 commercial property owners to apply for a property tax credit of up to $100,000 against the cost of a renovation project.

The credit covers repairs, expansions and enhancements that are "necessary to maintain the physical integrity of the property, with regard to safety, durability or weatherproofing," according to language in the bill. It does not include landscaping or interior work that is non-essential to the building's structural integrity. 

Property owners who are approved for the program will receive 125 percent of the project's cost as a tax credit. 

To qualify, the property must front Route 1 or be visible from Route 1 and adjoin a parcel that fronts the corridor. 

In a public hearing before the council on March 17, Department of Planning and Zoning Director Marsha McLaughlin said the program was "a joint initiative" between DPZ and the Howard County Economic Development Authority. 

"We have been working a long time on revitalization of Route 1," she told the council. "We have made progress but we also need more tools... We hope this will be something that will encourage some of our smaller industrial and commercial property to consider some improvements." 

HCEDA CEO Larry Twele said the program would be one of several initiatives in the effort to improve the aging corridor. 

"There's really no one silver bullet to solve the problem, and we see this as another tool in the toolbox that will hopefully encourage property owners to enhance their property," he said.

On Monday evening, several council members added amendments to the bill to clarify its boundaries.  

Council member Jen Terrasa, who represents the Route 1 corridor in District 3, introduced an amendment to limit the size of properties that can benefit from the credit to 10 acres "so we can preserve [the money] we have for very small businesses that we really want to be able to fix up the frontage on Route 1."

Council member Greg Fox introduced an amendment to place a cap of $50,000 on the amount a single property can receive in tax credits. That cap was later increased to $100,000 per project. 

The total amount the county can spend on Route 1 property tax credits per fiscal year is $500,000. 

Council member Courtney Watson also introduced a sunset provision that would cause the program to expire after 4 years unless it is renewed by the next council. 

Watson said the Route 1 tax credit program could likely be extended to the Route 40 corridor, which falls in her district. 

"I think it's something that could help us in a number of areas that need to be redeveloped," she said. 

The council also introduced two pieces of legislation Monday night that had not been pre-filed. 

In response to concerns in the western county over composting and mulching operations on preserved agricultural land, Watson introduced a resolution directing the county's Environmental Sustainability Board to review the potential environmental impacts of such practices. 

"We know this issue's coming to the council, [and] we thought it would be a good idea to have an independent board weigh in," she said. 

And Council chair Calvin Ball introduced a resolution to create a task force to study and recommend best practices for siting and regulating gas stations in the county. The resolution replaces another council bill that sought to change the county's gas station zoning regulations for the New Town district, which governs downtown Columbia development. 

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