General Plan issues noted by residents


Although fewer than 25 people signed up to testify about Howard County's proposed General Plan at last night's County Council hearing, a few basic themes came through strongly.

Fears about too-concentrated development, the traffic it would create, the empty land it would eat up and the quality of life it would cost.

Speakers for two large groups - the League of Women Voters and the Howard County Citizens' Association - generally praised the plan and the work that went into creating it.

But other speakers delivered sharp criticisms.

Their complaints seemed to underline what Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county planning director, had said in formally introducing the document: that it is not a consensus plan, satisfying everyone, but County Executive James N. Robey's vision for maintaining and enhancing the quality of life.

Among the dissenters from that vision were David Catonia, speaking for the Ellicott City Citizens' Association, who said he wants to make sure the plan says that new homes built in older areas are compatible with existing ones "This is a volatile issue for residents," he said.

Russ Strough, speaking for another group of four Ellicott City neighborhoods under the banner of the Patapsco Scenic Triangle Neighborhood Association, urged the council to reject the plan because it contained "false assumptions" about growth and failed to include a "zero-growth scenario."

Robert I. Bernstein , president of the Old Columbia Pike Association in Ellicott City, warned that concentrating too much on preserving rural land in the western county will leave small plots in the east too vulnerable to developers.

Debbie Izzi, speaking for the Citizens Alliance for Rural Preservation, opposed the widening of Route 32 between Clarksville and Interstate 70, arguing that it would "undeniably increase" the volume of traffic.

"Large freeways and rural character are incongruent," she said.

Nancy Davis of Clarksville agreed. Living a mile from the already widened portion of Route 32, "We cannot sleep with our windows open," because of the noise, she said.

Widening more of the highway in the western county would only encourage people to think they can buy homes in Carroll County and commute to Montgomery or Anne Arundel counties. "It will exacerbate sprawl," Davis said, and increase commuter traffic through Howard County, which lies between the two larger counties.

In written testimony, Dennis Luck of the Sierra Club urged that planning begin immediately for rapid mass transit to link Howard County to Baltimore, Washington and Baltimore-Washington International Airport to help reduce traffic, even if highway funds must be used to pay for the planning.

Several County Council members asked whether citizens would be willing to help monitor compliance with the plan, instead of waiting until 2010 and then looking back to see whether it was followed.

The General Plan, intended as a guide to the county's development over the next 20 years, is revised each decade. Not a land-use law itself, the plan forms the basis for zoning changes and housing allocations that come after the adoption of the plan.

Planners expect growth patterns to begin changing during this next decade or two, after 40 years of fast growth.

Under the proposed General Plan, the ceiling on the number of new homes allowed each year would drop from an average of 2,500 in the 1990 plan to 1,500 a year in the new one. In practice, the county's average over the past decade was slightly fewer than 2,000 new homes a year.

Fewer new homes, an aging population and older neighborhoods that need preservation are expected to slowly become the focus of county government.

Howard County, which grew from a sleepy rural farming area of 36,152 people in 1960 to a suburban/commercial center of nearly a quarter-million by this year, is expected to be past its fast-growth cycle by 2010. Despite that, planners say enough land is zoned for housing to allow for up to 30,000 more homes to be built over the next two decades.

Planners say that if the county sticks to its resolve not to extend public water and sewer lines farther west, the last large parcels of land zoned for development will be used up by 2012, meaning population growth also should slow.

Once the Iager Farm in Fulton and the Key property, farther east on Route 216, are developed into a combined 2,500-homes, plus commercial and office buildings, the era of big development in Howard will be over, officials say.

The plan is scheduled for a County Council vote Oct. 2.

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