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Developers don't like surprises either


AT EXACTLY 4: 27 p.m. Monday as I drove through the intersections of Calvert and Madison streets in downtown Baltimore, my car registered its 200,000th mile. The 16 years it took to accomplish that feat included some of the happiest and saddest moments of my life. Throughout them all was old Blue, my reliable Volvo wagon.

It's good to have things you can depend on to perform adequately if properly maintained. You don't want any surprises when you try to crank up your car on a sub-freezing morning. Likewise, surprises aren't appreciated when you're trying to develop a piece of property. But sometimes it happens.

Stewart J. Greenebaum, who wants to turn the Iager turkey farm in Fulton into a 1,000-home mixed-use community, got a surprise last week. Howard County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone introduced a series of proposed changes to the county's zoning laws that could affect the project.

Roads first

One of Mr. Guzzone's proposals would prohibit county approval of final subdivision plans for a mixed-use development if the roads that would serve the new community have not been built.

Developers would no longer be allowed to base their construction on road-building schedules in the General Plan. If a road that would serve a phase of their planned community hasn't been built, they wouldn't get permission to proceed.

Mr. Guzzone says it's not his intent to thwart the Iager project. But his legislation gives its opponents another weapon. They could delay or block funding of improvements to Route 216 and U.S. 29 that the project would need.

The Guzzone proposal seems to change the rules halfway through the game. A developer who seeks project approval under one set of rules should be able to complete the process within a reasonable period of time under the same regulations.

The road construction requirement isn't the only one of Mr. Guzzone's proposals likely to generate protest. He would require the county to do a fiscal impact analysis of each proposed mixed-use development.

Any such analysis would conclude what is already known: The more expensive the house, the more property tax revenue it generates. Affordable housing advocates have reason to fear fiscal impact studies that could discourage needed development of additional housing for middle- and low-income families.

Other zoning law amendments proposed by Mr. Guzzone are more palatable. Recognizing the need for more interaction between developers and neighborhoods affected by construction, he would require community meetings in addition to scheduled public hearings.

His proposal to separate zoning board consideration of site development plans from deliberations on whether a piece of property was mistakenly zoned makes sense. The Rouse Co. may have gotten the same results last year in the rezoning application for its planned mixed-use development in North Laurel. But each application would have had to stand on its own merit.

Maybe developers shouldn't have been surprised by Mr. Guzzone's proposed amendments. The former Maryland director of the Sierra Club has for some time been working with critics of the Rouse and Iager projects. But he says he is open to suggestions.

That's good to to hear. Mixed-use developments such as the Rouse and Iager projects are central to Smart Growth, the state program to curb suburban sprawl. They cluster residential development where infrastructure exists or can be easily extended.

Howard County doesn't want to discourage developers from seeking mixed-use zoning. The county wants mixed-use zoning to retain the flexibility that would make it attractive for developers to build a mix of housing for different income levels.

These things the County Council must keep in mind as it reviews and reshapes Mr. Guzzone's proposals.

Gray's proposal

The council must take the same approach in considering Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray's proposal to reduce the density of houses that a developer wants to build in Dayton.

Mr. Gray's stated desire to protect the water quality of Triadelphia Reservoir might not be accomplished by requiring bigger lots. People with bigger back yards have more land to cut trees or spread with chemical fertilizer that could affect the water.

Two years ago, Mr. Gray, an East Columbia Democrat, made a similar proposal on behalf of residents of the west Howard County community. He can be optimistic that the proposal will be approved with the new Democratic council majority, which includes Mary Lorsung and Mr. Guzzone.

It will be interesting, though, to see what happens. The two new Republicans on the council -- Allan Kittleman and Christopher Merdon -- ran on platforms of reducing development, as did Mr. Guzzone. But their GOP predecessors didn't support the proposal and, to this point, they have not appeared friendly to Mr. Gray.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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