The Howard County Council on Monday unanimously passed a bill tailored to help one of Howard's largest employers, Coastal Sunbelt Produce, remain in the county.
Officials at Coastal Sunbelt, a Savage-based food service distributor for the Mid-Atlantic region, are hoping to move its headquarters to a larger location in order to expand operations.
The business, founded in 1992, employs more than 900 people, according to its website, and could add several hundred more jobs after the expansion, according to the county.
County Executive Ken Ulman and the Howard County Economic Development Authority helped Coastal Sunbelt find a suitable spot in North Laurel, near Laurel Park race track, according to a county press release about the zoning bill.
Before discovering the site, Coastal Sunbelt had considered relocating outside the county, officials said.
But in order for Coastal Sunbelt to be able to move its operations to the North Laurel site, the county needed to expand its transit-oriented development zoning regulations, which didn't allow light industrial uses, such as those at the Coastal Sunbelt facility, as a matter of right.
The council bill amended TOD regulations to permit light industrial uses as well as single-family attached dwellings on the periphery of the TOD zone, which was designed to encourage high-density residential development on land within 3,500 feet of MARC stations in the county.
"It takes a hands-on approach to preserve and grow jobs," Ulman said in the release. "Coastal Sunbelt is a terrific business, and we need them to stay and prosper in Howard County. I'm glad we were able to figure out a way that allows this expansion to go forward."
"It took a lot of work to get to this point, and the Economic Development Authority is thrilled that this deal is going to get done," HCEDA CEO Larry Twele said in a statement.
A handful of county residents who came to testify about the bill Jan. 21 were not as enthusiastic.
Three people — two southeast county residents and one citizen activist from Clarksville — said they were concerned the county was allowing scarce land resources that could be used for schools and other amenities to slip away.
"This is a very minor change in the code, but it has major implications for our communities," North Laurel resident Brent Loveless said.
"We are in dire and desperate need of a school site down in the southeast portion of the county," North Laurel resident Judy Fisher George testified. "You know that TOD is coming. … Where are children supposed to go when you can't push any further?"
In explaining her vote in favor of the zoning change, District 3 County Council member Jen Terrasa said she was sympathetic to these concerns.
"This has been a tough one for me in some ways, and not in others," she said.
After the vote, she elaborated: "This was a little stressful from my perspective, because you're weighing the possibility of losing a lot of jobs."
And, she added, "This is a pretty decent use of the land," which under the TOD zoning could be developed into high-density apartments, bringing more crowding to the area's schools.
She said the site was "not ideal" for a school due to its proximity to a rail line. The county, she added, is "currently in negotiations attempting to buy another property [for a school in the southeast], and I hope that is going to happen within a year."
But Terrasa said she wished the community could have had more of an opportunity to be involved in the discussion.
"There are a number of residents who contacted me and have been concerned that they were not aware of what was happening here. … I think there should have been more outreach done," she said.
Coastal Sunbelt Produce has remained tight-lipped on the potential move.
In a statement, Coastal Sunbelt CEO John Corso said the company wanted to stay in Howard County.
"This is our home and we want to stay," he said. "We are a growing company needing to expand. Executive Ulman, along with his team, was pivotal in making sure we found a great location where we will be able to add jobs. We are hopeful we can complete the final steps needed for this venture and break ground soon."
Chief Financial Officer Bob Lahmann declined to comment beyond the information provided in the county press release.
"We're very, very excited about the project, and as the project moves on and we get to a point where we have more information and certainty, we'll certainly be able to talk more," Lahmann said.
County spokesman David Nitkin said the county had been helping Coastal Sunbelt in its search for land since last spring or summer.
Another bill, which would have conveyed 0.841 acres of county property on Dorsey Run Road to the company, was tabled in October.
Nitkin agreed that changing zoning regulations to help a specific business is an uncommon solution, but said the county wanted to do everything it could to help Coastal Sunbelt stay.
"The size of the employer and the number of jobs that could be added is significant and doesn't happen all the time," he said. "A deal like this, it doesn't come along everyday, and that's why the county executive got so personally involved in making sure there was a site that worked for this company. When [Ulman] heard there was a possibility of them moving and land was an issue, he rolled up his sleeves and went right to work to figure out how to solve this challenge.
"On a smaller scale," he added, "this discussion goes on all the time. That in itself is not unusual."