Howard County general plan stresses revitalization of U.S. 1 corridor

U.S. 1 in Howard County gets you from Elkridge to Laurel, from the White Elk Motel to the Fat Daddy Saloon, with an array of industrial and office parks, homes, fast-food restaurants, storage places and gas stations in between. The strip is looking better in recent years, sprouting new developments with names like Elkridge Crossing, Howard Square and Ashbury Courts, but it's still a work in progress.

The county's planning department has a vision of what that 11-mile stretch along Howard's eastern edge could be, and has included these notions in the proposed master plan for growth to be presented to the County Council for the first time Monday night. U.S. 1 revitalization — an effort unfolding in the county for more than a decade — received less emphasis in the 2000 general plan than in the new PlanHoward 2030, a 190-page outline of goals and methods for protecting the environment, the economy and what planners call "community quality of life."

County planners along with citizen groups and consultants have been working on the proposal for about two years. The PowerPoint summary unveiling Monday night will launch months of hearings and deliberations culminating in a vote that could be taken before the five-member panel goes on August recess.

"It will be one of the most important pieces of legislation during my time on the County Council," said Calvin Ball, a Democrat elected in 2006 to represent a district that includes portions of East Columbia, Elkridge, Ellicott City and Jessup.

Covering everything from resource conservation and economic development to libraries, the plan sets a course for roughly the next 10 years, playing a role in the decisions of the council and other agencies.

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, emphasized the significance of the plan when council members sit as the Zoning Board.

"Everyone refers back to it" in considering questions about requests for zoning changes in the years after the plan is adopted, Watson said.

The proposal essentially stays the course set in the 2000 plan and earlier, said Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of planning and zoning.

"This plan is not radically different from previous plans," McLaughlin said.

She was sitting in a conference room hung with color-coded maps of the county showing the 60-40 land split between the rural section to the west and the more densely developed east side, Columbia's village centers, and areas targeted for future "growth and revitalization" along U.S. 1 and U.S. 40.

The rural-urban/suburban split — a fundamental aspect of Howard's growth management since 1990 — does not change in this plan, although McLaughlin's department recommends slowing the pace at which land can be subdivided on the rural side. While the county now allows up to 150 lots to be created each year, the recommendation is to cut that to 100. At one time, it was as high as 250, McLaughlin said.

The way housing lots are allocated across the county is also proposed to change under the so-called Adequate Public Facilities law. Enacted in 1992, the law is meant to ensure that existing roads and schools can support new homes.

The new plan recommends that allotments be made in five categories, rather than 10. The change is meant to simplify the system and put most allocations in areas slated for "growth and revitalization," said William A. Mackey, Jr., the chief of comprehensive and community planning.

More than half of roughly 2,000 total county allotments each year between 2015 and 2030 are set aside for those designated areas.

That includes the U.S. 1 corridor, an expanse of 21 square miles that is home to warehouses, office and industrial parks — about a third of the county's jobs. The route has the advantage of location near Baltimore, Washington, Fort Meade and BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport, but portions still show the cluttered, rundown look of an earlier generation's main interstate and commercial strip, before Interstate 95 came through in the 1960s.

McLaughlin envisions a route lined with more attractive buildings served by more extensive commuter bus service than Howard Transit now provides — perhaps a traffic lane set aside for buses only.

About 90 percent of those 21 square miles are built upon, and much of the balance is already slated for new homes and businesses. Still, planners see opportunities for redevelopment. McLaughlin said some tinkering has to be done with incentive programs and zoning rules for that area to get the right development mix.

"We're not seeing the office or retail component keep up with the housing/residential component," she said, adding that the recession probably played a role. With U.S. 1 offering little open land — which is less expensive to build on and often more attractive to developers — she said the county has to make a particular effort to make sure the county competes with surrounding counties that have more undeveloped property, such as Anne Arundel.

A consultant's report completed late last year as part of PlanHoward research mentioned tax breaks, matching grants for property improvements, relocation assistance and low-cost loans among possible incentives that could be used.

Watson, whose district includes a portion of the northern end of U.S. 1, said the requirement that apartment buildings set aside the ground floor for stores has not produced the mix of activity the county had hoped. She said property owners are finding it difficult to find first-floor tenants.

Plans, as it turned out, ran up against economic reality, leaving some adjustments to be made.

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