Earlier citizen input needed in zoning cases


AREN'T THE holidays nice? Many of us get to take some extra time off from work, spend some quality time with the family, pause and reflect on all that has occurred in the past year and think a little bit about what we want the next year to bring.

County Executive James Robey was passing out cookies in a Santa hat last week. I'll bet the new members of the County Council -- Christopher Merdon, Allan Kittleman and Guy Guzzone -- also found ways to get into the holiday spirit. As did council veterans Vernon Gray and Mary Lorsung.

Storm ahead

Of course, the holidays can be like the calm before the storm. These elected officials will probably be busier than most of us when their work resumes next month. One of their most important tasks will be to counter some of the misconceptions about growth in the county that were prevalent in their recent election campaigns.

One of the biggest misconceptions was that growth is occurring unchecked and that no one knows where it is going to end. Actually, county planners have kept a close eye on development and have predicted a date when all the virgin land available for construction will be gone. It's the year 2013.

I know, you're wondering how that can be with all those wide open spaces in western Howard County awaiting the right developer. Truth is, it would be too expensive to bring sewer lines to most of the land that isn't in the county agricultural preservation program. And a lot of that property is unsuitable for wells or septic tanks.

If you think about it, there are signs that the county is running out of land. The most hotly debated zoning cases these days typically involve residents of a neighborhood who are fighting development that they believe will destroy the character of their community.

As the county gets closer to 2013, proposals for this type of "in-fill" development will increase. So will residents' complaints that the proposed construction would consume the scenic areas between their community and the next, which is what brought them to Howard County in the first place.

The council and Mr. Robey must fulfill election promises to be more sensitive to the concerns of existing neighborhoods about new development.

That doesn't mean they have to be anti-growth. It does mean the process for rezoning land to allow in-fill development must be reassessed to make sure there is ample notice of what's afoot.

There have been too many complaints that by the time a neighborhood finds out about development that is planned, it is too late to stop it. Zoning hearing battles and court challenges might be avoided if there were earlier communication between developers and residents of existing communities.

Those developers who may argue that earlier notification would simply mean earlier opposition have a point. But it should not be the most salient point for Mr. Robey and the council.

With Howard County predicted to be only 14 years away from running out of land for development, county officials must favor existing communities in deciding where additional construction should occur.

Zoning changes allowing in-fill development should not be granted against the wishes of an existing community unless the developer's proposal would fill an even higher priority.

The county's growing population of senior citizens, for example, has housing needs that must be met. As do the increasing numbers of young people who grew up in Howard County and, as adults, are finding it very difficult to afford housing in the county.

But even when the county leans toward new development to fill such needs, it should use its powers to engender greater cooperation between the builder and the neighborhoods affected by his project. The final product should be something both can live with.

During the 1998 elections, there was a lot of talk by candidates about rewriting the county's General Plan and adequate public facilities law to reflect citizen concern about the pace of development in Howard County.

Some tinkering

These guidelines may need some tinkering to reflect changes that have occurred since they were written nearly a decade ago. But the scrutiny of laws that should occur in the coming months is unlikely to lead to revisions that would greatly alter the course of development that has been set for the county.

The two large mixed-use developments planned for the North Laurel/Fulton area -- with more than 2,000 houses plus commercial acreage -- are probably the last projects of that size that the county will see for some time.

The remaining questions about the county's appearance 15, 20, even 25 years from now are more likely to be answered in individual zoning cases concerning pockets of undeveloped land otherwise occupied areas.

Once the holidays are filed away with other fond memories, the council and Mr. Robey can let the rest of us know how they plan to increase citizen input into such decisions.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

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