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Howard Planning Board tables decision on Columbia arts park

The Chrysalsis, an outdoor concert venue, will be the first project constructed in the Inner Arbor Plan, which could begin construction early next year.
The Chrysalsis, an outdoor concert venue, will be the first project constructed in the Inner Arbor Plan, which could begin construction early next year. (The Inner Arbor Trust)

The leaders and proponents of the Inner Arbor Plan have waited almost two years for approval to begin building a cultural arts park in downtown Columbia's Symphony Woods.

So what's another two weeks?

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On Thursday, the Howard County Planning Board deferred its decision on whether to approve the Inner Arbor Trust's site development plans for the park to Nov. 20. The controversial plan, which was introduced last year, proposes building a series of cultural venues connected by a system of meandering pathways north of Merriweather Post Pavilion. The plan is estimated to cost $30 million and will be built on 16 acres of woodlands.

The Planning Board's approval is the final hurdle standing between the development and construction on the first phase: an outdoor, shell-like amphitheater built of lightweight metal called the Chrysalis.

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Josh Tzuker, Planning Board chairman, said the board decided to table the decision for two reasons: the large volume of residents who came to testify either on behalf of or against the plan, and the concern raised by some that proper notice of the meeting, and the potential decision, was not given.

"I thought it was the fairest thing to do -- to allow people who were here tonight to testify and to allow for the continuation of it so people can learn more, figure out more, amend and submit new testimony," Tzuker said.

He added that the delay will allow the board to review more than 3 hours of testimony delivered by 23 residents Thursday, written comments that can be submitted up until Nov. 20 and future spoken testimony at the next meeting.

"If we were to do it all tonight, we'd be here until midnight," Tzuker said. The meeting started at 7 p.m. and ran until 10:15 p.m.

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The notice issue was raised by members of the Howard County Citizen's Association. The group argued notice of the meeting on the plan needed to be given two weeks in advance, when only one week was given. The county's legal counsel said two weeks was not required in this particular case, but Tzuker said it was best to air on the side of caution.

"I think the folks from HCCA raised a point," he said.

The testimony on the plan continues to be mixed. Thirteen of the 23 people who testified Thursday were in favor of approving the plan, which was the recommendation by the county's department of planning and zoning.

Some of those who testified against the plan said the board should deny it because of the circumstances under which is was conceived.

The Inner Arbor Plan was revealed by Inner Arbor Trust President Michael McCall in January of 2013 as a proposed alternative to the original plan, called the Paumier Plan after its principal creator Cy Paumier.

The new plan was a departure from Paumier's plan. The Inner Arbor proposes a contrasting aesthetic, more cultural uses and larger structures, while Paumier's would have created a more traditional park.

The Inner Arbor Plan was approved in February 2013 by the Board of Directors of the Columbia Association, the owner of Symphony Woods and the entity that owns much of Columbia's parkland.

The CA Board also approved the creation of the Inner Arbor Trust, which is a separate nonprofit led by McCall, to control the development of the park. The board also voted to convey the land to the Trust through an easement agreement and to give the Trust $1.6 million in seed money.

Detractors of the plan have argued that residents were not given an opportunity to be heard on designs for the plans, which were largely complete when revealed last January.

Tzuker said on Thursday that some of the criticism did not fall within the planning board's purview, namely the operations of developers and the design choices for the park.

Tzuker stressed that it is the body's job to evaluate the plan's merits based on specific criteria.

"I would argue we have to look at if it meets the criteria set forth in the zoning, and the criteria we set for the park," he said. "I think if it meets all those criteria, I think you have to follow the black letter of the law. If you substitute our vision and artistic desires for what's legal text, you just walked down a very dangerous road where people on this body are wielding too much power."

The list of specific criteria includes creating public art, conforming with Merriweather and conforming with guidelines laid out in the Downtown Columbia Plan. The plan also has to respond to criticisms delivered by the Planning Board in 2012 when it evaluated the Paumier design. One of the chief suggestions then was to preserve more trees, which the Inner Arbor Plan would accomplish by cutting down 34 trees.

On Thursday, McCall said he approved of Tzuker and the board's decision to differ.

"No one wants, including us, to not let everyone who wants to talk have a chance," he said.

McCall said he thought it was "a good night," and said the testimony was what he expected.

"Those who are against it are the same people who have been against it consistently," he said.

The plan will be developed in seven phases. The first phase of the development, which is funded by a county grant of $1.6 million, will build an outdoor amphitheater, called the Chrysalis, east of the concert venue. It is envisioned that the shell-shaped amphitheater, which will be made out of a lightweight fiberglass, will be used by both Merriweather operators and the Trust.

The second phase includes building a pathway and elevated boardwalk over a natural stream bed and swale from the corner of Little Patuxent Parkway and South Entrance Road to the Chrysalis. That phase requires extensive stream restoration, which costs approximately $500,000. McCall said the Trust plans to develop the first two phases in tandem.

Future phases, which could take between one to two years each to complete, include a glass and mirrored guest services building called the Butterfly; a children's playground inspired by circles, called the Merriground; a 300-foot-long floating seating area called the Picnic Table; and the Caterpillar, an 800-foot-long, 15-foot high tube -– which will be landscaped with potted plants and green artificial turf –- dividing the park and the concert venue.

It also includes creating a new access point and parking for the park called "Free To Be Drive," which is phase seven and likely will be the last development.

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