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Citizens group to file complaint against Zoning Board State review sought of closed-door action on Rouse proposal


A citizens group, angered by plans for a Columbia-style village in North Laurel, intends to file a complaint with the state attorney general against the Howard County Zoning Board for a procedural decision that was made behind closed doors.

Kathryn Mann, president of the Howard County Citizens Association (HCCA), who is filing the complaint, said the Zoning Board board made its decision Jan. 8 in a closed session in violation of the state's open-meetings laws.

She wants the board's action reviewed by the attorney general's office, which is in charge of enforcing open-government regulations.

In its January decision, the Zoning Board decided to hear as a single issue the Rouse Co.'s request that a 527.3-acre site off Gorman Road be rezoned from business to mixed use and the company's plans for the development.

Rouse is calling for a mixed-use development about half the size of a Columbia village, with hundreds of single-family and multifamily homes, business and office space, and a recreation area.

The North Laurel development would be south of Gorman Road and north of Route 216, straddling Interstate 95. Construction would begin in 1999.

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

The citizens group is concerned about the increase in traffic that the project would bring.

The project is scheduled for a hearing before the county Planning Board March 12, after which it will go back before the Zoning Board for final approval.

This week, Mann and other members of HCCA said, the coun- ty's Office of Law denied for the second time the group's request that the rezoning question and the review of the company's development plans be dealt with separately by the Zoning Board.

The HCCA, a countywide group, has sought since fall to have the two issues separated. County officials and Rouse executives say that doing so would cause unnecessary delays and confuse the hearing process.

Paul Johnson, a county attorney, has said that the Zoning Board was within its boundaries in making the decision in a closed session. But HCCA members say that is unfair.

"We're really concerned that the procedures being used here are inappropriate and may come back to haunt the county later on," said Greg Fries, HCCA vice president.

"We may have a bunch of mixed-use development cases pop up in the future if this is successful, and making decisions behind closed doors on how to hear them would be a bad precedent."

HCCA members also say that merging the project's two needed approvals is unfair, confusing, costly and places unnecessary burdens on citizens.

"It may not make any difference for [Rouse] whether things are heard separately, but for the average citizen group it's a big deal," Mann said. "If we decide to hire experts to testify on issues like traffic that may affect the development, but then the board decides not to rezone, we've wasted our money."

Alton Scavo, Rouse senior vice president, said he thinks the Zoning Board acted within the law and within its power in deciding to hear the zoning issue and the project plans together.

"They had the facts to make their decision, and they made it," he said. "People do have rights to ask for a review. ... After all, this is America."

Pub Date: 2/13/97

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