In the next month, Howard County officials are hoping local residents will help vet a recently released draft of the county's new "Plan Howard 2030" general plan in a series of open houses and through an online comment portal.
The document, an update of the county's 2000 general plan, outlines development and growth priorities for the county that will shape a wide range of economic and community revitalization initiatives during the next decade.
It also incorporates the 2010 Downtown Columbia Plan and state and local environmental guidelines developed in recent years, including new storm water regulations.
Comments gathered through the public process, which will culminate in a public hearing before the county planning board April 18, will be considered along with the board's input by the administration as it finalizes a version of the plan to present as a bill before the County Council, likely this summer.
The plan will become an official strategy of the county only after being approved by the council.
According to Marsha McLaughlin, the county's director of Planning and Zoning, the plan works off a "solid framework" of past county plans and implements guidelines from last year's PlanMaryland document at the state level — making Howard one of the first local jurisdictions, if not the first, to adopt the state's new guidelines.
At 242 pages, the county document is "hefty" and can be slightly overwhelming, McLaughlin said, and the open houses are intended to be a "quick and easy way" for residents to understand the plan through slideshow presentations and opportunities to talk with county staff members, she said.
Public participation in the planning process will be critical if the plan is to succeed, McLaughlin said.
"Most of the land in the county is privately owned, so we're trying to make a point that if we're going to sustain our environment and the business sector and the communities, everybody has to help," she said.
Straddling the high-growth corridor between Baltimore and Washington, and having a relatively high standard of living, Howard County is poised to see tremendous growth in coming years, McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin said growth inherently creates challenges for the environment and infrastructure, but that the county will meet those challenges, in part because of its new Plan Howard 2030.
"It's certainly a challenge, and it would be easy to allow too much development to take over things and impact adversely, but on the other side, you can't just stop any kind of growth and evolution," McLaughlin said. "We have a great location. Businesses want to come here. People want to come here. So the question is: How do you balance that?"
Under PlanMaryland, local jurisdictions have been tasked with better defining their priority funding areas — those pegged for state infrastructure dollars — and the county has done so largely by maintaining its existing east-west development axis.
Areas slated for "growth and revitalization" in the plan mostly fall in existing communities in the county's developed east, while areas slated for "low density development" and "rural resource" use fall in the county's largely undeveloped west.
Almost all of the county's land east of Route 1, a prioritized growth corridor, is slated for revitalization under the draft plan, as is a swath of land between routes 175 and 32 heading west toward the center of Columbia.
Two areas slated for rural resource use straddle Interstate 70 above and below the Turf Valley area, which is slated for growth itself. They fall just east of a stretch of land that bisects the county and is slated for low density development. Everything west of that stretch is slated as rural resource.
One section of the county west of Turf Valley is slated to gain access to county water services. Village centers in Columbia are also pegged for revitalization.
Transportation the 'Achilles' heel'
The draft plan, which was created by the administration in collaboration with Ulman's General Plan Task Force, otherwise breaks down into 12 chapters: quality of life and sustainability, public participation, environmental protection, resource conservation, economic development, growth, transportation, infrastructure and services, housing, community design, implementation and stewardship.
Environmental emphasis is placed on implementing a federally-driven watershed implementation plan and the county's green infrastructure network, to establish hubs and corridors of green space, while developmental emphasis is placed on the revitalization of the routes 1 and 40 corridors, on building mixed-use projects and mixing affordable and mixed-income housing.
In transportation, emphasis is placed on providing public transit options and bike-friendly and pedestrian-friendly methods of travel.
According to Ned Tillman, chair of the 36-member General Plan Task Force and a professional planner, members approached the plan with county residents' current quality of life in mind, but also with the knowledge that they had to be "pragmatic about what can be done and can't be done."
Of all the data the task force had to process — they were given more time to do so than originally scheduled — the extent to which the county will continue to grow is what surprised Tillman the most, he said.
Between 2010 and 2030, projections indicate the county population will grow by 54,000 residents, or about 19 percent, to more than 341,000 residents.
The county population will also age dramatically and grow more racially diverse, projections show.
"Coming into this and looking at the data, I thought we were closer to the build out than we are," Tillman said. "I moved here in the late 70s and I thought I was one of the last people. And we've doubled in size and still there's going to be a lot of growth in the next decades."
Controlling traffic and congestion will be the county's single largest challenge in coming years, Tillman said.
"Transportation is our Achilles' heel," he said. "It's really the challenge here, because it is going to get more dense, but maybe not dense enough to support mass transit in a major way."