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Council fine-tunes General Plan draft


Preparing for a final vote next week, the Howard County Council met late yesterday to fine-tune a draft of the county's 263-page General Plan. Among topics discussed were tightening protections for rural land to the west. Council members also argued over adjusting charts that control how many new homes can be built over the next two decades.

Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, wants to trim 10 percent of new homes allowed in the western county during the early years of the plan, shifting 25 new homes a year to the last eight years of the plan. Guzzone said the change would slow growth, giving the county time to preserve open space and build infrastructure.

But Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county planning director, said he and County Executive James N. Robey oppose that change.

Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, wants instead to allow 250 more homes a year in his more urban eastern portion of the county, though that proposal seemed to have little support.

"I'm comfortable with the [housing allocation] chart the way it is," said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican. All five members readily agreed with Rutter, who said, "This chart is one of the most critical parts of the whole document."

Although the plan does not have the force of law, it is the basis for zoning changes and other laws that will come after the council's Oct. 2 vote on the document. To that end, the average number of new homes allowed under the plan would be cut from a 1990 ceiling of 2,500 units a year to 1,500 a year.

The drop is not as dramatic as it sounds, because builders have been putting up slightly fewer than 2,000 units a year during the past decade. If current zoning doesn't change, the county could see as many as 30,000 more houses built in the next two decades.

The General Plan is a 20-year guide that looks toward the end of Howard County's 35-year growth spurt, to a time when all the large pieces of land zoned for development will be spoken for.

As the number of homes built each year declines, and the county's senior citizen population rises, the plan puts more emphasis on preservation of open space and existing neighborhoods in rural and urban areas.

Several of the amendments suggested by council members are intended to strengthen the barrier between eastern county areas served by public water and sewer lines, and those farther west where wells and septic systems are the rule.

By preventing the extension of public utilities, county officials hope to keep development to a minimum in the west and protect the area's rural atmosphere.

To that end, several amendments supported yesterday by Guzzone and western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman would remove language that appears to create loopholes that could allow the westward extension of public utilities.

At the same time, the plan addresses the need to begin concentrating on keeping suburban neighborhoods in Columbia attractive to new generations of home buyers. In addition, the plan reflects the county's desire to redevelop older areas such as the U.S. 1 corridor, from Laurel to Elkridge.

And while the most recent public battles over the county's future involved plans for major developments in North Laurel and Fulton that would add more than 2,500 homes and 2 million square feet of commercial space, tensions are also high about small groupings of homes builders are constructing on small parcels in older areas such as Ellicott City.

Another hot issue is the state's plan to widen Route 32 between Clarksville and Interstate 70. Some residents fear that widening the road will draw more commuter traffic from Carroll and Frederick counties, while others, including Robey, say traffic is already so bad that public safety is the bigger issue.

Guzzone and Kittleman said that increasing traffic capacity on Route 32 should be an absolute last resort, after every other safety improvement has been made.

Rutter said his main worry is that, if the road is not widened, pressure will grow to widen other, smaller rural roads that may begin absorbing more commuters looking for shortcuts.

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