A controversial new Howard County zoning district has been challenged for the past two months by residents who say it gives developers too much freedom. Now, some claim it may even be illegal.
The Community Enhancement Floating (CEF) district, proposed by the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, is intended to allow property owners more flexibility in developing property by allowing zoning changes for parcels of land as small as two acres in some areas of the county.
Susan Gray, a land-use attorney and Highland resident, argued that the proposed zoning district violates the County Charter by illegally moving rezoning map authority from the County Council to the Zoning Board. The five County Council members also serve as the Zoning Board.
"This is a violation of 202 G of the charter and the right of referendum that it establishes over piecemeal map amendments," Gray said Monday, Dec. 17 at the Howard County Council's Legislative Public hearing.
She said the county's procedures of approving floating zones takes the residents' voice out of the process, limiting their chances to oppose a project.
Gray has filed unsuccessful lawsuits in the past against Howard County's process of making land-use decisions because it limits citizens' rights to challenge through referendum.
Paul Johnson, deputy county solicitor, said Gray's argument is a matter of interpretation.
He said the designation of floating zones goes before the Zoning Board instead of the council because it is a quasi-judicial process, meaning decisions are based on evidence of record and findings of fact.
If it were to go before the council it would be "purely legislative," he said.
"Obviously we don't think it's a violation of the charter," Johnson said.
More than 10 residents testified on the CEF Monday night.
While most thanked the council for proposed amendments to the original bill, they said it still wasn't enough to approve this new zoning.
"I don't think that the legislation can be rescued by the numerous amendments that are being put forward," said Grace Kubofcik, of Ellicott City.
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If approved by the council, use of the zoning district would only be allowed in residential zones served by public water and sewer, which eliminates about 60 percent of the county, according to Marsha McLaughlin, county director of planning and zoning.
Columbia, along with areas zoned mixed use, planned golf course community and industrial, are also excluded, McLaughlin has said.
Amendments filed to the bill include increasing the minimum lot size to five acres. That is unless the property sits along and has access to Route 1 or Route 40, where the minimum lot size would still be two acres. Amendments also include eliminating the density exchange option, which gives developers the option of purchasing development rights from other areas of the county giving their project sufficient criteria to move forward.
Residents have argued the new zoning gives developers the freedom to build large buildings in the middle of a neighborhood without allowing community members enough opportunity to oppose the projects.
Ellicott City resident Marc Norman called the zoning "unconscionable," allowing "unlimited height, unlimited setback and unlimited bulk" regulations.
"The bottom line is it should go back to the drawing board. It should go back to comprehensive rezoning where it can be taken in the context of everything you are trying to do in this county and the appropriate research can be done," he said.
The Howard County Council is expected to vote on the new zoning district Jan. 7.