Planners support zoning proposals; Developers say bills target specific projects


Two zoning proposals that would tighten controls on development in Howard County have passed their first hurdle to becoming laws and face a second one Wednesday night.

Despite complaints from developers of contested projects that could add a combined 2,600 new homes in the fast-growing county, the Department of Planning and Zoning released technical staff reports Friday that backed restrictions on development proposed by County Council members C. Vernon Gray and Guy Guzzone, both Democrats.

Gray's proposal would block Glenwood farmer Charles Sharp from building some of the 95 houses he plans to construct on 237 acres of farmland on Triadelphia Road in Dayton.

Guzzone's bill would place new limitations on mixed-use developments, typically large projects that mix residential, commercial and employment uses on one tract of land.

The county Planning Board will offer its recommendation on the zoning proposals at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City. The County Council will make a final determination on both measures at a yet-to-be-announced meeting.

The planning staff reviewed the Guzzone bill point by point and recommended two major changes.

One would reduce the required amount of active recreation open space from 30 percent to 10 percent. The higher percentage would mean open space would take land for employment centers, making a project inflexible and unworkable, planning officials say.

The other would ease a requirement that roads be completed before any houses are built to say that construction funding for the roads must be budgeted. Since homes are built over a period of time, completion of roads before houses isn't necessary, officials argue.

Two other, less important changes would eliminate a proposed fiscal impact study for each development and give the county Planning Board power to say if a gas station may be included, instead of requiring a special zoning exception.

Guzzone seemed willing to consider changes.

"I'm a firm believer in the process. I don't have all the answers. I'm willing to learn," he said, anticipating Wednesday's hearing.

David E. Forester, vice president and senior development director of Howard Research and Development, a Rouse Co. affiliate, said Friday that the firm's position would "be laid out" at the hearing.

Rouse is preparing to build a large, mixed-use development of more than 1,000 homes in North Laurel, and county Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. said Guzzone's bill, if approved, could affect parts of the project over the next few years. Another, equally large project proposed for rural Fulton, less than five miles west, would also be affected.

Rutter said the changes he suggested are designed to help Guzzone's bill reassure residents worried about overdevelopment without hurting the mixed-use concept, which the county likes.

"I tried to approach the staff report in a constructive way," Rutter said.

Bills called 'unfair'

But Thomas W. Ballentine, director of government affairs for the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, criticized Guzzone's and Gray's bills for appearing to target individual projects -- something Guzzone vehemently denied.

"Howard County has a reputation for being an evenhanded and predictable place. Getting into specific legislation targeting individuals gets away from that tradition and is unfair," he said.

But some slow-growth advocates feel that the bills, and the debate, may be beside the point.

Columbia, argued John W. Taylor, past president of the now-defunct Howard Countians for Responsible Growth, was supposed to be the one mixed-use development that would preserve the rural remainder of the county. The idea of building more mixed-use developments outside Columbia makes the concept of using Columbia to save rural areas "dishonest and deceitful," he said.

'Nibbling at the edges'

"While I appreciate what Guy is doing, it's nibbling at the edges of the problem. Howard County has been overwhelmed by overdevelopment for over a decade, and mixed-use developments just make that worse," he said.

If approved, Gray's bill would change the county zoning code to mirror the state's, which prohibits the development of homes on fewer than 2 acres on parcels of 20 acres or more within 2,500 feet of a reservoir in a rural conservation district.

The department's technical staff report concluded that the measure "will better guide development in the County by ensuring consistency between State and local development requirements."

Alec Adams, an attorney representing Sharp, criticized the proposed change, which could result in the loss of about 25 homes in Sharp's plan, called Big Branch Overlook.

"Obviously, we don't think it's fair to come back and retroactively stop a project that has met all the other requirements of the subdivision process," Adams said. "I don't think [Gray] should be tinkering with the zoning process."

Adams, who vowed to appeal the zoning bill if it becomes law, questioned Gray's involvement in a community that is not in the east Columbia Democrat's district.

But Gray said he receives numerous calls from residents outside his district and noted the Dayton Community Association's request for a meeting with the council member in June 1997 as the primary reason for his involvement.

Concern for environment

"My overall concern is to protect the environment," said Gray, who added that he is not targeting only Sharp's project. The proposal "is aimed at all developments within 2,500 feet of the reservoir."

Peter J. Esseff, president of the Dayton Community Association, said he is pleased to witness the fruits of the neighborhood's two-year battle to slow construction of Big Branch Overlook.

"We've been working so hard to preserve the reservoir and environment," Esseff said. "We're finally getting people to acknowledge our efforts."

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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