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Howard development halt hits wall, solar development expansion moves forward

The Howard County Council tables a temporary development halt and passes a measure to expand solar development.
The Howard County Council tables a temporary development halt and passes a measure to expand solar development. (Fatimah Waseem)

As historic Ellicott City reopens and rebounds after a devastating flood swept the area nearly three months ago, the Howard County Council voted Wednesday to table a proposed temporary nine-month halt on development in the area.

Proposed changes to the bill would mute the impact of the halt by exempting certain projects, including changes to properties built before the mid-1980s, among other proposed amendments.

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If passed with the exemptions, the move would only halt one project that is already in progress – a proposal to build 13 houses on Church Road in historic Ellicott City.

According to the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, 11 other projects in process could still move forward. Still, the halt would create uncertainties for some developers if stormwater management regulations change after the moratorium passes, said Jeff Bronow, the department's chief of research.

Councilman Jon Weinstein, who proposed the measure, said he was disappointed the other council members tabled the move, which he said was he proposed as an effort to encourage county officials to critically examine the impact of increased development on flooding in the Tiber-Hudson watershed.

Council members said they needed more time to determine how the halt would impact residential and commercial development.

"There's no question that I support the necessity for this, but we need to make sure amendments get addressed," said Councilwoman Jen Terrasa

Compared to other jurisdictions in the state, Howard County has a high portion of land dedicated for development, according to studies by the Maryland Department of Planning. Almost half of the land in the county is developed.

Residential development tops other uses in the watershed and makes up roughly 37 percent of land, according to the county's Department of Planning and Zoning.

Weinstein said he was optimistic his proposal encouraged the county to evaluate the relationship between development and flooding with a greater sense of urgency.

Meanwhile, another major change to development patterns passed unanimously.

The change, which pitted farmer against farmer at public hearings, opens up to solar development hundreds of acres of Howard County farmland that is protected from development, at taxpayer expense.

Opponents said allowing solar development defeats the purpose of the agriculture land preservation program, which allows landowners to sell their development rights by entering their land into the program.

The opposition to the solar development plan prompted Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty to place stricter requirements on the review process of proposals. The changes would expand the county's Agriculture Preservation Board's authority by allowing the advisory body to evaluate proposals before developers begin the county's multi-step approval process.

Supporters like the Howard County Farm Bureau said the move supports struggling farmers by offering a reliable and environmentally friendly income stream.

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