Ever since Jim Rouse and company decided to meticulously build Columbia from scratch in the 1960s, grand, detailed plans and the processes behind them have been an inextricable part of the community's identity and how it is shaped.
It's a fact county officials, developers and residents involved in the current redevelopment of the downtown area say they don't begrudge.
But there is one new planning process on the books — the extensive, 16-step "Land Development Review Process for Downtown Columbia Revitalization" — that has ruffled more than a few feathers among residents, developers and local officials since its inception in 2010.
Residents have called the process "confusing," "extreme" and "repetitious."
Phillip Nelson, president of the Columbia Association, said he and his staff were "kind of shooting in the dark" and "didn't really know what the county expected" when they came up with a plan for the association's Symphony Woods project last year. The project was sent back to the drawing board and has since been revised.
Jim Whitcome, senior development director for General Growth Properties, who is currently leading his company through the process for the first time for its proposed project at the Mall in Columbia, has said the process makes Columbia among the more complicated areas to develop nationally.
The plan, created amid a swirl of input from residents, public officials and private developers, was envisioned as an outline for shaping the current redevelopment, one that included plenty of community input.
But in recent months, as the process has been applied to projects intended for the various "neighborhoods" encompassed in the downtown zone, including Symphony Woods and the Mall in Columbia, it has attracted criticism, spurred confusion, incited a contentious back-and-forth between residents and developers in at least one planning meeting, and left an overall bitter taste in some people's mouths.
Some fear it has also undermined interest in Columbia among developers and financial investors.
"People in the financial world and the development world are not looking to come to towns where they are put through what I call an unreasonable process for something that is pretty straightforward in the development world," said Cy Paumier, a local urban design consultant and former Rouse Company employee who has been deeply involved in Columbia's development for more than 50 years.
"This is not rocket science. I think people could be discouraged from investing in Howard County. I worry about that."
Product vs. perception
For the most part, the process is being panned for how it is being applied, used and understood.
The county has been criticized for leaving unclear what is to be expected at each of the many steps required in the process. Developers have been criticized for taking a cautious business approach that has left residents feeling anxious about project details. Residents have been deemed naive in their understanding of the process.
The process consists of two distinct, but similar, eight-step phases. The first covers Final Development Plans, which include general land-use details and their relation to existing neighborhood design guidelines, and the second covers Site Development Plans, which are far more nuanced outlines of projects.
Both phases include reviews by the county's Design Advisory Panel, the Department of Planning and Zoning, the Subdivision Review Committee and the Planning Board. Both offer four different opportunities for community input to be heard. Other existing planning processes must be followed as well.
All together, the process follows a clear pattern that makes logical sense, many said.
"It's logical," Whitcome said. "Somebody sat down and really broke apart the development process and said, 'These are discrete steps in the process.'"
Marsha McLaughlin, the county's director of planning and zoning, said the process is "working pretty well," but is also a "work in progress" that has only been applied to a few projects so far.
"Obviously when you drastically change the procedures like we did with downtown, it's going to take some time to figure out what's working well and to smooth out," she said. "...I think we will, over time, probably figure out some ways to keep the best features and maybe tweak some things that are not as efficient as they might be."
But McLaughlin said there "were good reasons as to why each of the requirements were put in" the process, and large-scale changes are not likely.
Joan Lancos, land-use liaison for the Hickory Ridge Community Association and a longtime observer of Columbia development, said many of the issues people have with the process stem from poor understanding of how it works.
For example, people need to understand that there will be opportunities for public input early on, when developers don't necessarily have a lot of details to share. The process was not created in a vacuum, she said, and its individual steps shouldn't be viewed in one either.
"We went through months of hearings and planning board work sessions and County Council testimony on developing this whole downtown master plan process, and repeatedly through all of that, people said, 'We want input. We want to have a say in every single thing that's going on in the process,'" Lancos said. "This is what people in Howard County wanted, so now that we've got it, we need to sort of just get used to it, understand where we are and ask the right questions."
Alan Klein, of the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, said the process itself is fine. What's at issue, he said, is how it is being applied.
"I think the process, if it's done well, can be appropriate," Klein said. "If it's mishandled, I don't think it will be."
Developers and consultants said they want to be open with the public. But in some instances in the current process, they have appeared confused about when to share what, just as residents have appeared confused about when to expect what.
The county could take steps to help clear the confusion, Whitcome said, by better defining its expectations.
"I don't think it would hurt for the county to explain to the residents of the county, 'This is what you get at each step in the process,' and it wouldn't hurt for something to be on the website," he said.
McLaughlin said the process puts no restrictions on what developers can share about their projects during the different steps in the process. Still, she said she will consider offering more explicit information on what is to be expected and when.
"I will go back and see what is in the language that we provide to developers as guidance," she said.
Klein said county officials and developers will both have a role to play in ensuring the process serves residents, as it was intended to do.
"A lot of it is going to depend on how the developers and the county handle themselves," he said. "I don't want to say residents start from a position of distrust, but I think residents correctly start from a position of, 'Show me.'"