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Rouse plan opposed by civic group Citizens' association asks that mixed-use proposal be rejected; Procedures violated, foes say; Separate reviews being urged for two-part blueprint


A countywide civic group is asking Howard County zoning officials to reject Rouse Co.'s proposal for a Columbia-style village in North Laurel because it believes the developer violated county procedures in seeking approval for the project.

In a Nov. 25 letter to the county zoning board, officials in the Howard County Citizens' Association (HCCA) said the Rouse "mixed-use" proposal -- a development project that would bring hundreds of single-family homes and multifamily units as well as retailers and a recreation area -- has two parts that should be reviewed as separate cases.

The first case, HCCA officials say, is a request to change the zoning designation for a 527.3-acre site off Gorman Road from "planned employment center," a business district, to the mixed-use category.

The second case, they say, is a review of Rouse's preliminary development plans for the project.

If county zoning officials approve the project, it would be the largest of its kind under the new mixed-use category -- a designation that aims to re-create the new town zoning style of Columbia in areas throughout the county.

HCCA, which has supported mixed use as a way to develop Howard's land, is mostly concerned that if the zoning change and the development plan are reviewed together, the project won't be scrutinized as thoroughly as if the two parts were considered separately.

"It's a serious change," said HCCA President William Waff. "If this goes through as one whole thing, then others could go through the same way."

Rouse officials disagree with HCCA's position and say they usually file other such zoning petitions the same way they have presented this mixed-use proposal.

"I think there is no legal precedent that would require separation," said Alton Scavo, senior vice president for Rouse.

"Historically in Howard County they've been done at the same time."

At the request of Paul Johnson, county attorney, the zoning board -- a group made up of County Council members -- is considering a closed session Jan. 8 to discuss the procedures for handling HCCA's request. The board must decide by a majority vote in an open meeting whether to hold the closed session.

"It's just to decide how to proceed legally in this case," Johnson said. Closed sessions are allowed for "consultation with legal counsel and to discuss something that involves potential litigation. It has nothing to do with any evidence."

About half the size of a typical Columbia village, the Rouse mixed-use project would sit south of Gorman Road and north of Route 216 on the east and west sides of Interstate 95. It would bring 1,425 residential units to the North Laurel-Savage area and more than 3,800 residents.

Residents near the site of the proposed project fear that it would worsen traffic problems and crowd schools if adequate public facilities are not developed with the project.

HCCA wants to ensure that those issues aren't overlooked. But organization officials believe that the combination of the request for a zoning change and the request for approval of the development plan will make it more difficult to give those concerns their needed attention.

"It kind of clouds the issue," said Waff. "It needs to be two separate projects."

Gregory Fries, a vice president of HCCA who lives near the mixed-use site, said part of the concern is for such roadways as Gorman Road, one of the county's designated scenic routes. The new development is likely to increase traffic and ruin the scenic nature of the roadway, he said.

As of yesterday, Rouse had not responded to HCCA's letter, but Scavo insists that there are no problems with the plan. He said the mixed-use development will bring less traffic to the area than such other projects as a business park, which could be built under the current zoning.

Moreover, Scavo said that Rouse used the same approach when it developed Columbia, which was built on the new town zoning category similar to the mixed-use one.

He said he believes the move by HCCA is an attempt to slow the development process, but he said there are advantages and disadvantages to such a move.

By presenting the zoning change and the development plan together, residents and the county are clear on what will go on the site, Scavo said. And it allows the developer to move more quickly on the project.

If the two are separated, the developer could win approval for the mixed-use zoning and decide to change what will be built on the site.

The mixed-use zoning category is an "overlay" district, which means the developer can use either the original zoning category -- in this case the planned employment center designation, which could be used for a business park -- or the mixed-use zoning.

Scavo said he believes that the proposal has been presented with residents and the county in mind.

Pub Date: 12/18/96

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