Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, gave updates on the Freedom Plan, the Warfield Project, and water and sewer rates to an intimate group of about 20 at the South Carroll Senior and Community Center on Wednesday evening, in part to wrap up his eight-year tenure as the district’s county representative.
The Board of County Commissioners plans to approve the Freedom Community Comprehensive Plan — the framework for land use, growth management, rural and agricultural policies, economic development, water resources, natural environmental resources, community facilities and services, and recreational resources — before the next board takes over, Howard said on June 6.
“We are 100 percent going to finish this plan, not pass it on,” said Howard. “We want it done for a lot reasons.
“At the end of the day, we need to get it done not only because it’s time to move on, [but] we have projects that can’t be done without land use figured out.”
In the planning process land use must be determined first, he explained, before zoning can be implemented. So holding off the long overdue update to the 2001 Freedom Plan is impeding other progress, he said.
Howard also said he was proud to announce the Warfield Project is finally in motion after almost 23 years of planning.
“Unfortunately I didn’t really understand how complicated the project was and what it would take to get it done when I very confidently went out and made a [campaign] video and called [Warfield] the ‘Intersection to Nowhere,’” Howard said.
When he got into office eight years ago, he said, meetings were not regularly held discussing the Warfield Commerce and Cultural Center and there were many state and county agencies with their hands in the mix.
Eight years later, the developer is closing on the deal this month and the construction of townhouses will begin before the year’s end.
Water and sewer rates
And in a convenient sequence of events, Howard said water and sewer rates will not be increasing come July 1 — although it was expected rates would go up 5.6 percent for users who are on county water to offset the costs of maintenance and repairs the system will require in the coming years.
Howard’s whole point in contesting the rate changes since they were proposed was to argue much of the maintenance and repair is necessary due to the growth expected in the Freedom area, he said, and perhaps, the county could take funds from economic development to offset the responsibility placed on ratepayers to support that growth.
His argument alone did not entirely influence the decision not to increase water rates, though. The decision — or lack thereof — came from a resolution in 2016 in which the commissioners voted that any change to water and sewer rates needed to be approved by a supermajority, 4-1, rather than the standard 3-2 vote.
“In the absence of an agreement on a change, there is no change at all,” he said, “so we ended up with a zero percent increase. I'd love to come in here after eight years and say I planned for this, but … it was really more happenstance.”
The gap between what the utility enterprise fund needs to function and what the budget will allow has yet to be resolved, but as of now, he said, the rates will not be changing.
When the time came for residents to share their comments with Howard, about half the attendees admitted they were there to complain about the Freedom Plan’s proposed land use changes to 117 Luers Lane, which is currently set for local business up to 10,000 square feet. The updated Freedom Plan changes the land use to allow for high commerial use, for buildings up to 100,000 square feet.
“We do not have the proper infrastructure on the roads,” said Toni Giordano, a resident of Homeland, the adjacent property. “We are concerned about the environmental impact. We really don’t want to have that development take away our quality of life.
“One of the things about the recent disaster in Ellicott City … a lot of it was caused by the over-development in the area.”
Other Homeland residents — who said their property abuts Luers Lane with a huge slope between them and two 20-foot retaining walls — said they hoped Howard would take a stance against the land use change.
“The simple answer is yes, that's absolutely one of the properties we will be talking about,” Howard said. “The challenge we have as it relates specifically to the Homeland issues is we’ve heard a lot from both sides — from folks who’ve lived there.
“People say, ‘Just listen to the votes,’ ” he said. “Well sometimes y’all don't speak exactly the same way with the same message. We’ve got to try to figure that out.”
Other concerns included that of an Eldersburg resident, Beth Gray, who said a recent news article led her to believe Board of Zoning Appeals meeting might not be advertised in the newspaper anymore.
Howard said, however, that although there is talk of changing the policy for news advertisements, the information would be made available electronically via email and social media, and that he is working on including in the change a requirement that notice signs on properties have a larger font that is readable for motorists depending on the speed limit.
“The bottom line is, I think every effort is going to be made to be as absolutely freewheeling with information as possible,” he said.
Cathey Allison, a resident running for a seat on the Board of Education, said she was concerned with his suggestion to plan a police precinct in Eldersburg in the future when a proposed solution has already been implemented as a satellite station was already put in the town.
“That satellite office that was moved out of the library and opened about four years ago, that didn’t cure the problem?” she asked. “That was the reason that was opened.”
Howard said that although the satellite location is fitting for something minor, like holding a teenager caught shoplifting, it is not suitable for any serious crime that could occur. In order to detain a perpetrator, he said, an Eldersburg officer would have to leave their post for however much time it would require for them to take the person to Westminster and deal with the paperwork.
“At some point in the future we will have to be policing in Eldersburg from Eldersburg,” he said.
A Sykesville resident, Katie Gerity, asked why the government couldn’t schedule meetings without conflicting with school schedules.
“I have lots of friends that are at the [high school] awards ceremony and not here,” she said after the meeting. “It is a common theme within the government.”
Last year, Gerity said, the Freedom Plan public hearing was scheduled on the night of Liberty High School’s graduation.
“We didn’t want to do anything until the budget was done,” Howard said. “I didn’t think of the awards ceremony, just the graduation. It is very challenging.
“We were originally going to do this next week,” he said. “But it was going to be the last day of school, early voting starts the 14th, it was just the best we could come up with.”