Council OKs zoning bill, 3-2


A sometimes bitter dispute erupted as the Howard County Council considered 45 new amendments last night to a complex 114-page zoning bill, before approving the long-debated measure.

By a 3 to 2 vote along party lines with Democrats prevailing, the council voted to create a new zone to encourage more senior housing, to require larger landing and takeoff zones for helicopters and to restrict the storage of propane and explosives, along with a laundry list of smaller zoning law revisions.

The council also approved a new enforcement system for discouraging sales of tobacco products to teens, a more generous pension system for county firefighters, and raised the ceiling on the county fire tax rate.

The dispute over the zoning amendments broke mainly along party lines and left Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, in the middle.

Guzzone was accused by the council's two Republicans of breaking faith and reversing position on several of the 30 amendments to the bill that they submitted.

"We worked hard and had an agreement on Thursday, but I understood at 6:15 [last night] that the third member backed out," said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.

"Clearly, I'm the one everyone is pointing at," Guzzone said.

But he added, "I believe I did not have the full story when this was discussed," denying any breach of promise.

The major argument involved an effort by Merdon and Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western County Republican, to change the bill in a way that would limit the number of senior housing apartments per acre in a specific office zone.

County Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr., said before last night's meeting that the amendment would effectively bar further construction of mid-rise assisted-living homes in Howard County.

These buildings are often built on land zoned for planned office research, Rutter said.

The change would place such housing in the new planned senior district zone created by the new law. The effect of that, Rutter said, would be to limit assisted-living homes, which are often 20 to 30 units an acre in density, to the eight units an acre in the new zone, making them economically unfeasible.

The amendment was aimed at Taylor Manor Hospital, a private psychiatric facility on 60 acres in Merdon's district. Dr. Bruce Taylor the hospital's operating partner, attended last night's hearing and said he is considering developing part of the property, though he has no immediate plans.

Merdon said that without the amendment potentially thousands of apartments for the elderly could be built at Taylor Manor Hospital because its land is zoned for planned office research.

He said that intense development at Taylor Manor would overburden the residential streets that surround it.

"We should not restrict opportunities for senior housing in the county," said Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat. "I don't see what negative impact it would have."

Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, said, "If you can build an office building with however number of people, the impact is going to be as great or greater [than senior housing]. I frankly think it's not a bad idea."

By a 3-to-2 vote along partisan lines with Democrats prevailing the County Council voted against changing the proposed law in a way that would restrict development at Taylor Manor.

Guzzone did vote with the Republicans on several of their amendments but sided with the other two Democrats on most, including a series of procedural changes that he and other Democrats insisted should be proposed as separate bills and reviewed by the Planning Board.

Speaking of the procedural amendments that were rejected, the chairman said, "I feel they are very good. They are very important amendments." But he and the other Democrats said the Republicans had proposed too many, too late.

The council agreed unanimously to restrict helicopter landing zones to keep them at 1,000 feet from any public institution, and at least 700 feet from the nearest property line.

The anti-smoking bill will use state tobacco suit settlement money to hire a Health Department inspector to issue civil citations to store owners found to be selling tobacco products to youths younger than 18.

County police may file criminal charges for violations of youth smoking laws, but it's often not their highest priority. The inspector will visit stores, instead of merely waiting for complaints.

County Executive James N. Robey proposed an increase of 1.75 cents per $100 of assessed value in the separate property tax the county uses to pay for fire and rescue services, to pay for higher costs.

One of those costs is the $500,000 the Robey administration has agreed to contribute annually to the enhanced pension system for firefighters, which the council approved last night.

Under the new system, firefighters can retire at half pay after 20 years, at 65 percent of pay after 25 years and at 70 percent of pay after 30 years. County police got a similar deal, though with slightly different benefits.

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