Board signs rezoning of 12,000 eastern Howard acres North Laurel mixed-use center only one rejected


The county Zoning Board last night signed a comprehensive rezoning package that will change the use of nearly 12,000 acres of eastern county land.

The signing, which makes the rezoning official, ended a cycle that started with drafting the General Plan, which was adopted in 1990. This plan served as the basis for the rezoning. A western rezoning package was signed in September 1992.

"On balance, we did an excellent job," said board Chairman C. Vernon Gray, who presided over 13 public hearings and 14 work sessions since the board began in December.

In thanking citizens for their participation, Mr. Gray said, "at times, emotion ran high -- and that's understandable -- sometimes from fear of the unknown . . . also from misunderstanding that they might have had over this process."

The cornerstone of the eastern changes is the creation of five mixed-use centers, intended to provide for carefully planned development of houses, apartments, shops and businesses in a Columbia-style village setting.

The largest of the six proposed centers was rejected by board members, who said they wanted to put off its development. Most of that 1,085-acre parcel in North Laurel is owned by the Rouse Co. and county planners had expected that it would have been the first major mixed-use center to be developed.

"I'm still a little confused by the selective interpretation of the General Plan," said Alton J. Scavo, Rouse's senior vice president and director of community development. He said the company would seek to develop the site anyway, either through a separate rezoning petition, a legal challenge, or under the existing residential and employment center zoning.

Without the North Laurel mixed-use center, said Planning & Zoning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr., it is doubtful that any of the other three large mixed-use sites, in Fulton, Jessup and southern Ellicott City, would even start the development process before the turn of the century.

The Fulton mixed-use center, a 820-acre site at Route 216 and U.S. 29, drew the fiercest opposition from citizens. Opposition .. was organized and encouraged by growth-control advocate John W. Taylor.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the eastern comprehensive rezoning was the rezoning of an 18-acre tract sought by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for a warehouse-sized Sam's Club membership store at U.S. 29 and U.S. 40 in Ellicott City. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, lost a bid for two stores in a separate rezoning case in July 1992.

While Wal-Mart won only enough general business zoning for one store on that site, developer Robert R. Moxley won rezoning of 44 acres that could be used for a second store or a competitor at U.S. 29 and Route 103.

The mixed-use centers are intended to solve a number of the county's planning problems, including making mass transit more viable by concentrating commuters in one place; encouraging development of more affordable condominiums and apartments; and, giving people an opportunity to live and work in the same community.

The largest change in the rezoning package will put virtually all land along the Patapsco River, from Woodstock to Elkridge, into two new "residential-environmental development" zoning districts. The new categories allow developers to cluster homes so as not to disturb environmentally sensitive areas such as flood plain or steep slopes and to avoid historic sites.

Growth-control activist John W. Taylor has called the entire process a "sham," and said it may be "legally defective" under state law.

"Howard County's process for land use is defective because it doesn't allow for citizen referendum," he said.

The General Plan and comprehensive rezoning is currently being challenged in a Circuit Court lawsuit filed by five other growth-control activists.

Although he said board members "approved their own agenda throughout, regardless of the public's opinions," he acknowledged that board members Darrel Drown, R-2nd, and Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, "at least tried to incorporate some of the public's input."

Mr. Drown and Ms. Pendergrass argued for lower limits on the number of homes that could be built in mixed-use areas, which they noted before signing the package last night.

Although they did not win a limit of two residential units per mixed-use acre, the limit was lowered from eight units to three for mixed-use areas of more than 75 acres, and from eight to six for smaller areas.

That number was effectively cut further by a mixed-use restriction proposed by board member Paul Farragut, D-4th.

Adopted unanimously, the requirement keeps mixed-use centers at 2.3 residential units per acre -- roughly the density of Columbia -- unless a percentage of the units was moderately priced.

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