Before they trudge to the county with their engineering studies and site plans, developers who want to add houses to the eastern Howard County landscape must meet with a panel of local experts.
It's a new rule, put in place to make certain that nearby residents find out ahead of time what sort of buildings could be moving in -- and so they get the opportunity to ask for changes when the timing is still good.
"To get that input early on may save everyone some grief," said County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.
The first of these required "presubmission community meetings" was held yesterday. A dozen residents (counting the two toddlers) used the face-to-face time to ask developer Donald R. Reuwer Jr. for some minor changes to his minor subdivision in Ellicott City.
Some of the residents, who live near the planned development west of Route 104 near Route 103, arrived at his office on Main Street with misgivings. They left with fewer worries.
"It went much better than I expected," said Misty Lawrence, who lives next to the 2.6-acre parcel that Reuwer intends to split into four residential lots. "There have been a lot of improvements made to make at least our part of the neighborhood feel better."
That's the best-case scenario county officials had hoped for when they required these meetings for all proposed residential subdivisions in eastern Howard, where lots are smaller than in the county's western end.
Developers are required to notify only adjoining property owners about the meetings, but the Department of Planning and Zoning also posts the times, dates and places on its corner of the county's Web site, www.co. ho.md.us.
Until now, unless they checked regularly with the county, residents could not be certain they would even hear about proposed subdivisions before construction trucks rolled up. Developers had to post a sign on the property if they planned to build a new public road -- but no roads meant no signs.
"The key thing is early notice -- the residents know what's going on upfront," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county's planning director. "Hopefully there is a dialogue where ... compromises can be reached. Whether that's rearranging some lots or changing a road entrance location, the developer has much more flexibility at this point in the process than at the end of the line."
County Council members are also considering a similar, countywide meeting requirement for "conditional uses," such as private schools, child-care centers and church additions, which must be approved by the county Board of Appeals.
Though they balk at extra regulations, some developers say it's good business practice to meet with neighbors. L. Earl Armiger, president of Orchard Development Corp. in Ellicott City, gives as an example one of his experiences in Montgomery County. About a year ago, he brought his plan for 100 units of senior housing to the community first, before asking the county for the special exception he needed for the project.
After 10 months of neighborhood meetings, he proposed to the county a plan for 80 units in a two-story building -- with the community's support.
"We got that approved with one of the easiest hearings I've ever seen," Armiger said.
The neighbors who met with Reuwer yesterday happily discovered that some of what they wanted was already in the works.
Lawrence's initial understanding was that the developer planned to demolish the Cape Cod house on the property and prepare lots for four new homes. Reuwer told residents yesterday that he has decided to keep the Cape Cod where it is, though whoever buys the lot has the right to remove it.
Residents also found that the turnaround they would love to have on their dead-end street -- so narrow that truck drivers have to back up to get out -- is in the plans.
"For minor subdivisions, there's no requirement for road improvement, but we're going to do it to make sure people can come in and out," said R. Jacob Hikmat, vice president of the engineering firm working on the project, Mildenberg, Boender & Associates.
Reuwer agreed, if the county permits it, to deed some of the extra open-space land to next-door neighbors, who figure it will be best maintained if they do the work.
"You guys find this helpful?" he asked after the 45-minute meeting.
"Yes, very much," Lawrence said. "I feel a lot more comfortable today."