Council unanimously passes General Plan update

After two months, six work sessions and 33 amendments, the County Council Thursday unanimously passed legislation implementing the once-a-decade update to the county's General Plan.

The plan, titled PlanHoward 2030, is a nearly 200-page policy document that guides land use and development in the county.

"I think that this document provides a very good guidance for how we'll go forward," council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat, said.

Council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, added: "It is a plan that is generated from input from all sorts of stakeholders. … It covers every aspect of life in Howard County. It's definitely the people's plan, and it's a plan that doesn't sit on the shelf."

Even the council's lone Republican, Greg Fox, of Fulton, was happy with the final product.

"While I have a couple of concerns here and there within the document, overall they're minor in comparison to what we're accomplishing," Fox said.

Many of the 33 amendments the council passed are wording changes aimed at ensuring the intent of the various policies in the document are clear.

Intent is important, as the General Plan serves as tool for attorneys arguing zoning cases, county officials crafting planning and zoning policies, and developers looking to build or revitalize communities. The council will also use the plan as a guide as it goes through the comprehensive rezoning process, which is expected to begin this fall.

Many of the word changes centered around transportation. Council member Jen Terrasa, a Columbia Democrat, sponsored several amendments to include language that encourages the county to better promote and plan for bicycle and pedestrian access and transit stops.

All five council members sponsored an amendment that requires the county to evaluate and potentially establish a regional transportation authority or other organization that facilitates better cooperation among the counties in implementing solutions to the region's transportation needs. The amendment also includes language to encourage "new and innovative approaches" to addressing overcrowded roads, such as High Occupancy Vehicle lanes, express toll lanes and reversible lanes.

Watson sponsored a few amendments aimed at protecting industrially zoned land. Continuing to have industrial uses in the county, she explained "is beneficial to the county's tax base."

Growth tiers gone

One of the more important amendments the council passed was to remove the growth tier designations from the plan.

A state law proposed by Gov.Martin O'Malleyand passed by the General Assembly this spring requires local jurisdictions to divide their land into four growth tiers, with properties designated as Tier IV banned from having septic systems in new major residential subdivisions.

The law has caused a lot of controversy in Howard County, where the administration has proposed designating the entire rural conservation zoning district as Tier IV. Some rural property owners, fearing the designation would undercut the value of their land, have applied for grandfathering, which requires them to go through the costly process of subdividing their land.

Removing the tiers from the plan buys the council more time to try to come up with alternative solutions before the state's Dec. 31 deadline.

"We have the opportunity to look at this issue a little bit more in-depth," said council member Calvin Ball, a Columbia Democrat, noting the council intends to look at it again in the fall and pass a general plan amendment.

Another fairly expansive amendment the council passed adds several new policies and actions to the plan related to development in Columbia, focusing on the village centers and their relationship to other areas where commercial uses are concentrated, such as Snowden River Parkway, the Dobbin area and Route 1.

The amendment also calls for a re-evaluation of the new town zoning that encompasses much of Columbia.

"To do anything within the new town zone, one has to get permission from the original petitioner," Sigaty said, referring to Howard Research and Development Corp., an affiliate of the Rouse Company, which owned the majority of land in Columbia. "We no longer have a single land owner so we need to sort out what needs to be done."

Other amendments the council made to the plan:

• add a policy that requires the county to refine the zoning regulations for the rural conservation and rural residential districts "to provide greater flexibility for the agricultural community" while protecting residents;

• refine language that called for evaluating creation of a county historic preservation plan to make it a requirement;

• add language to encourage the school system to "make efficient use of existing school capacity, avoiding unnecessary capital outlays;"

• insert a section on finding ways to enhance transitions between high schools, community colleges and four-year institutions; and,

• require the county to evaluate renovating or replacing the circuit courthouse.

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