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Howard council approves sale of county-owned property

A former antique store at the "gateway" to North Laurel could soon be on the market, with some caveats

The Howard County Council on Monday voted to give County Executive Allan Kittleman permission to sell a property at a prominent corner along Route 1, which had been targeted for redevelopment under former County Executive Ken Ulman.

Kittleman first requested the council's approval six months ago to put the Hurst property, at the corner of Route 1 and Whiskey Bottom Road in North Laurel, on the market, but a resolution wasn't introduced until July. Councilmembers said at the time they wanted to wait until the fiscal year 2016 budget had passed before they turned their attention to the potential sale.

At its monthly voting session Oct. 5, the council voted unanimously to dispose of the property, a 1.92 acre parcel at 9770 and 9790 Washington Blvd., with the caveat that Kittleman must issue an analysis explaining how any proposed redevelopment on the site would benefit the community and contribute to revitalization along the Route 1 corridor.

Councilmembers also stipulated that a community group made up of at least three local residents must be established to evaluate any redevelopment proposals the county receives for the property.

Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a Democrat who represents the southeast county, sponsored the amendment that requires the analysis and community group evaluation. She said the Hurst site is located on "a really important corner from my district's perspective.

"I was concerned that if we sold the property just to the highest bidder, that would not be to the benefit of the community."

The Ulman administration purchased the Hurst property, a former antiques store located next to the Beechcrest mobile home park, for just under $1.9 million in December 2014. This summer, county Finance Director Stan Milesky said the purchase was made through an "inappropriate use" of tax-exempt bonds.

"The information has been shared with me... that we didn't intend to hold this property" for county use, Milesky told the council at a June work session.

Terrasa, who says she was involved in discussions leading up to the purchase, said Monday "the idea was that we would try to assemble the properties on that corner and make something much greater out of it.

"This should be a gateway into the community," she said.

Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, expressed concern that Terrasa's amendment could slow the process of selling off the site. He noted that purchase offers are based on current market rates and usually have an expiration date.

"I don't want this to be held for a long period of time," he said.

Fox proposed two amendments of his own – one that would require the community group to evaluate redevelopment proposals within 60 days and a second that asks the group to consider price when making its recommendation to the executive.

"If we have proposals that come in above what we pay for and proposals that come in below, I think we need to look at that from an economic standpoint, as well," he said. "I don't think we should be disregarding or having a much lower value for the price. I just don't think that's fiscally responsible."

Councilmembers voted to approve the 60-day time period, but voted down Fox's second amendment focused on price.

Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said Kittleman would still have the final say on a sale, and could take cost to the county into account when making a decision.

"Nothing in here requires the county executive to act on [the community group's] recommendation," she noted.

With Monday's vote, the council has released three of the four properties Kittleman requested to sell off in April. Councilmembers have already voted to dispose of the former Maryland Environmental Services building in Jessup and the Bickley property, an Ellicott City house that flooded during Tropical Storm Lee. Permission to sell the old Columbia Flier building, which has been pegged by Columbia master developer Howard Hughes as a potential site for affordable housing development, is still on the table.

Zoning tweaks

The council also voted unanimously Monday to approve two bills that tweak Howard County zoning code at the request of local business owners.

The first expands the Limited Outdoor Social Assemblies conditional use category to allow existing farm structures to be used during events.

The change was requested by Robert Walker and F. Maxine Walker, the owners of Harwood Farm LLC in Woodbine, which is used as a wedding and events venue.

Once the subject of a divisive battle among neighbors for the right to host events, the farm got nothing but support at a September public hearing on the Walkers' latest request.

Attorney Alex Adams said permission to hold events in the barn would help contain noise and keep visual disruptions – such as tents and port-a-potties – to a minimum.

The second zoning change reduces the lot size for home-based contracting businesses in the R-20 district, within certain conditions, at the request of North Laurel contractors Jonathan and Sonya Miller.

The Millers have operated their business out of their home on Shady Acres Lane, south of Route 216, for more than two decades but were recently cited by the county's Department of Planning and Zoning for violating zoning code because their property does not have conditional use approval.

To help bring the business into compliance, the council approved a reduction of the lot size and setbacks necessary for a conditional use approval.

Councilmembers also approved an amendment sponsored by Sigaty, which minimizes the impact of the zoning change. Under Sigaty's amendment, home-based contractors on R-20 land must abut an intermediate arterial highway, like Route 216, among other requirements.

Sigaty said only six other R-20 properties would become eligible for a home-based contractor conditional use with the change; of those, only two are not slated for other development. She called the bill "a solution that doesn't open the door for lots of properties and recognizes that" the Millers are already operating their business.

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