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Rouse plan for apartments near Post Pavilion denied

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For the second time in four years, the Howard County Zoning Board rejected a Rouse Co. proposal to develop apartments next to Columbia's Merriweather Post Pavilion.

At the same time, the board approved other nearby apartments and a proposal to annex a large parcel in east Columbia into new town zoning, giving the Rouse Co. the chance to develop more land later.

Rouse executives were pleased that the bulk of their proposals were approved, and that they were given a chance to state their case for the Merriweather development.

"I don't have any complaints. I think we always have gotten a fair hearing," said Alton J. Scavo, Rouse senior vice president and general manager of Columbia.

The company, which developed Columbia, first asked in 1991 to change its 11-acre parcel between Broken Land Parkway and Symphony Woods from commercial to high-density residential. No one testified against the plan then, but it was rejected after one council member raised objections.

That council member, Paul Farragut of Wilde Lake village, did not seek re-election last year, but he returned last week with a group of prominent Columbia residents to testify against the new proposal.

They opposed the rezoning because they feared the apartments or condominiums could put the concert pavilion, a city landmark, out of business. The opponents argued that complaints from residents would lead to enforcement of county and state noise laws and the pavilion's demise.

In part, Howard County Council members, sitting as the Zoning Board, agreed during a work session Thursday night that mixing loud concerts and apartments might be a problem for the pavilion.

The three Republicans on the council -- Chairman Darrel Drown of the 1st District, Charles C. Feaga of the 5th District and Dennis Schrader of the 3rd District -- voted against the rezoning. The council's two Democrats -- Mary Lorsung, whose 4th District includes downtown Columbia, and C. Vernon Gray of the 2nd District -- did not vote, saying they wanted more information about the proposal before deciding.

Despite the rejection, the board agreed to the rest of the Columbia rezoning package sought by Rouse planners. The package would convert a 12-acre commercial parcel behind The Mall in Columbia to apartments and would annex 135 acres of the former General Electric Appliance Park East. It likely will take county lawyers several weeks to write the formal decision and give it to the members to sign. Once three members of the board sign it, the decision is in effect. Board members may change their minds anytime before then, but rarely do.

"There is no way that a building that close is not going to have the concerts affect it in some manner," Mr. Drown said. "Even the [Rouse Co.'s] consultant said so."

During hearings Wednesday and Thursday night, an acoustical engineer testified that noise levels near the stage at a few concerts can rival those of a commercial jet at takeoff. But he said levels could be below legal limits if the pavilion were fitted with noise absorbing panels and a solid roof.

Mr. Drown said board members' major concern, however, was that putting apartments or condominiums in the area would further strip the county of valuable commercial land.

"We've got to take a long-term approach, and the business climate is going to come back," Mr. Drown said. "Businesses are going to want to come in here, and we've got to have the land and we've got to have the infrastructure when that happens."

The three- and four-story apartments, condominiums or townhouses the board rejected for Symphony Woods and approved for 12 acres bounded by The Mall, Governor Warfield Parkway and Little Patuxent Parkway are part of Rouse's plan to enliven Columbia's downtown.

The idea -- backed by the county Department of Planning and Zoning and written into the county's 1990 General Plan -- was to add more residents to a downtown area of mostly shopping and offices. That would give downtown the more urban, 24-hour flavor that Columbia's planners envisioned when the city was founded 28 years ago.

The former General Electric Appliance Park East site would remain commercially zoned after its annexation into Rouse's new town zoning. But when the Rouse Co. develops the 135-acre site, it would have to adhere to strict guidelines about open space, Mr. Scavo said.

He said the guidelines give buyers of neighboring townhouses the assurance that any commercial facilities built on the site would be compatible with surrounding properties.

The annexation would also increase the total acreage of Columbia. Because density rules limit development to about 2.3 houses or apartments per acre in the city, the additional 135 acres of nonresidential land would allow the company to build about 300 homes elsewhere in the city.

Mr. Scavo said the additional homes probably will never be built, because he expects Columbia to be completed with far fewer homes than county regulations permit.

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