Move could eliminate commercial zone in parts of Howard County's rural crossroads

Move could eliminate commercial zone in parts of Howard County's rural crossroads

Howard County's planning board will consider a proposal Thursday to abolish a zoning designation designed to spur commercial development in the rural crossroads of Dayton, Lisbon, Highland and Glenwood.

The proposal by council members Greg Fox, a District 5 Republican, and Mary Kay Sigaty, a District 4 Democrat, would remove the floating zone, called BRX, or business-rural crossroads, in response to community concerns that the zone applies a one-size-fits-all approach where the need for additional commercial development is questionable and, in some cases, unwarranted.

"The communities are saying this is not something they want," Fox said. "We're being responsive to the community."

Created in 2013 during comprehensive rezoning, a major process that allows property owners to seek council approval for zoning changes every decade, the BRX zone allows developers to apply for approval of restaurants, convenience stores and other light commercial development through the county's zoning board. During comprehensive rezoning, several Highland properties requested to change their zoning to commercial zoning.

Since then, the roll-out of the zone has not been well received by most Highland residents, some of whom originally favored the the zone because they thought it would add more predictability in the county's approval process for commercial properties, according to Dan O'Leary, vice president of the Greater Highland Crossroads Association.

"In the beginning, the concept was very modest: let's have development and let's put in some controls. That's what we thought we were getting but that is not what we got," O'Leary said. "We don't want to be Clarksville."

Preservation Howard County, a nonprofit organization that aims to preserve the county's historic and cultural heritage, has listed Highland as an endangered historic area since 2007. The community was established in 1749.

Concerns prompted a year-long moratorium of the zone, effective April last year, and five town halls between the county's Department of Planning and Zoning and residents of the affected areas.

While O'Leary said most residents oppose BRX because it compromises the quality of life of rural crossroads instead of compliments it. Some residents like Tim Feaga, a Lisbon resident for around 20 years, said the zone is vital to add new life to "dying" areas of the county that are slowly "turning into ho-hum districts" that are "losing their historic charm."

"There was a desire for crossroads to become more vibrant. The reality was you might need some expansion," said Feaga, a lifelong Howard County resident. "Lisbon has no anchor and by taking this zoning away, it never will. … If they're not growing, they're dying."

Kesar Chaudhary, a primary care physician, wants to add vitality to Highland by changing his property on 13303 Clarksville Pike, which qualifies for BRX, into a commercial project like a wellness center or clinic.

Because his property is within 1,000 feet of the zone, BRX would allow him "a straight shot" to apply for the designation without navigating significant legal hurdles to pursue development, a process that he says is especially cumbersome for immigrants like himself who feel area residents do not want an influx of immigrants in the area.

"If something is already existing, why not keep it?" said Chaudhary, a U.S. citizen. He said his concerns are shared by a handful of other immigrants in the area.

O'Leary said concerns about immigrants "have never come up in our meetings."

He said Highland is "a very welcoming community...We have our differences of opinion, but we're polite and respectful of each other."

Because BRX is a floating zone and must be approved by the zoning board, the underlying zoning of the rural communities will remain unchanged unless property owners seek to rezone through the county's traditional process, according to Amy Gowan, DPZ's deputy director.

In its technical staff report, DPZ recommended eliminating the zone because it applies broad requirements to unique communities and has limited water and sewer infrastructure to support the zone, among other reasons. DPZ staff also questioned the need for additional commercial development, citing that nearly half of Glenwood Station, a nearby retail center, is sitting vacant.

The zone's design also allows potential unintended commercial development in some areas that have little to no connection to the rural crossroads.

If properties are within a certain distance of certain intersections, individuals can apply for the zone, creating a "domino effect" of intensified commercial development next to residences, according to the report.

No one has applied for the zoning designation since it was approved in 2013.

DPZ has no plans to change the BR district, Gowan said. That zone allows business development that supports the agricultural industry and rural residential and farming communities.

The planning board, which has an advisory role in this case, will consider the proposal on Thursday at 7 p.m. in the George Howard building in Ellicott City. The change then requires council approval.

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