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Howard County Council likely to table downtown Columbia redevelopment plans to September

Downtown Columbia is envisioned to be the vibrant urban core of the county.
Downtown Columbia is envisioned to be the vibrant urban core of the county. (Courtesy of Howard Hughes Corp.)

The Howard County Council will provide more opportunities than usual for public testimony as it considers unprecedented legislation to redevelop downtown Columbia.

The package — a nearly 200-page measure that includes a $90 million public financing deal to fund public infrastructure improvements and a 40-year binding agreement for affordable housing — will be introduced on Friday and will likely be tabled to September. The Council will also consider a competing plan for affordable housing by Councilwoman Jen Terrasa.

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Residents and community organizations pushed the administration and the council to schedule more public hearings or delay the introduction of the measures to September after the council's August recess and summer break.

County Council Chairman Calvin Ball said he will introduce the legislation — sponsored by the administration — on Friday.

"While we cannot change the unfortunate timing of when this legislation was filed, the council is working to ensure that every resident who wishes to testify on these issues has the opportunity to do so," said Ball.

Terrasa said the "complexity" of the administration's proposal makes it "ill-timed for a mid-summer public hearing" and highlights that "the developer has successfully over-complicated this issue to appear to be delivering greater community benefit than the proposal actually provides."

The administration originally planned to introduce the package in June. But plans were pushed to July because outstanding issues were being negotiated. Kittleman discouraged the council from delaying introduction of the package in September.

Ahead of Friday's introduction, community organizations expressed concerns about the legislative schedule for the plans.

The Town Center Village Board "finds itself overwhelmed with the administration's introduction of eight bills," warranting "much greater explanation and consideration" than normal, wrote Linda Wengel, the board's chairwoman. The board requested the council introduce the "sweeping legislation" in September.

The Howard County Citizens Association echoed the board's concerns and called for delaying introduction to September.

"I really believe that in all fairness to the public they should be given all the opportunity to review. ... This would allow people to digest the material and perhaps be better prepared to testify," wrote Stu Kohn, the organization's president. "With this most accelerated schedule on the surface one can conclude that the proposal is a 'a done deal,'" Kohn wrote.

While he did not have concerns about delaying a vote on the measures, Kittleman said he had strong concerns about the council delaying the start of its review and deliberations, citing an "unprecedented amount of public participation" in the housing plan for downtown Columbia.

Over the last nine months, Kittleman said stakeholders met with community organizations like the Town Center Village Board, the Wilde Lake Middle School PTA and representatives of the Banneker neighborhoods.

The administration indicated the housing plan — the product of months of negotiations between the Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation, the Howard County Housing Commission, the administration and Howard Hughes — is a consensus-driven and achievable approach to build affordable housing in downtown Columbia. The county's planning board, which is an advisory body, recommended the administration's plan in May.

"I introduced this legislation only after careful review to ensure that it protected our taxpayers and provided a framework for responsible, sustainable development in Downtown Columbia," Kittleman said.

Howard Hughes' vice president of development, Greg Fitchitt, said the company looks forward to working with the administration, the council and the community to implement the vision laid out in the Downtown Columbia Plan, a foundational document approved by the Council in 2010 that envisions downtown as an urban core.

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"The County Council sets the schedule for pre-filed legislation, but we support an open and transparent process that allows for public input and deliberation," wrote Fitchitt in a statement.

After Ball introduces the legislative package on Friday, the council will review downtown Columbia legislation in a special legislative session on Monday, July 11 at 8:30 a.m. Public hearings are scheduled for Thursday, July 14 and Monday, July 18 at 6 p.m. The council plans to schedule additional hearings in September.

The Council's full calendar is available on its website http://cc.howardcountymd.gov/Calendar

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