Some residents of Ellicott City's historic district are considering how far they will go to preserve their community, where homes on large lots lie in the shadow of Patapsco Female Institute.
With deadlines for comprehensive rezoning fast approaching, about eight homeowners on Sylvan Lane, Park Drive and the upper part of Church Road hope to reduce the density of future development, said Church Road resident Gary Segal, who helped research the possibility.
"We feel we have a unique piece of history -- a unique setting that really can't be found anywhere else in the county," Segal said.
The residents want to change the zoning for about 80 acres in the area, restricting the density to one house per 3 acres. Houses could still be built on existing lots smaller than 3 acres.
The lots are zoned to allow about two single-family detached houses per acre. However, owners could develop homes on smaller lots by reserving unbuildable areas, such as steep slopes, as open space. As a result, residents have noted with dismay that new developments have cropped up on properties too small, they believe, to match the surrounding community.
Residents are weighing the pros and cons of rural-residential zoning, which is found in western Howard County. The proposed designation would allow some uses that residents may not feel are suitable for Church Road's winding, narrow lanes, such as beauty parlors, kennels or storage of school buses. They also are awaiting answers about the effect on tax assessments and property values.
"The challenge is, any of these changes have different financial impacts ... on each individual. They have a right to protect the value of their property," Segal said.
Church Road residents have until today to submit their request to the county Department of Planning and Zoning and still be included in the countywide submission to the Planning Board, Segal said. If residents cannot come to a decision by today, they can present their request directly to the board when it meets March 10 to discuss the department's report.
Neighbors have considered other options, with mixed reviews, to reduce the density of future development. Some homeowners have considered donating preservation easements, said Ann Jones, vice president of the Howard County Conservancy. In exchange for relinquishing the right to develop their land, property owners receive a lower tax assessment, property tax credits and inheritance tax benefits.
But the value of an easement, based on the feasibility for development, among other factors, varies from parcel to parcel. Charles Kyler, a resident of Sylvan Lane, said he supports the easement possibility.
However, as co-chairman of the Historic District Committee working on the Ellicott City Master Plan, he included a proposal to create a zoning designation specifically for the historic district, placing oversight over any development in the hands of the Historic District Commission.
The commission has no responsibilities over subdividing lots in the historic district, but it evaluates proposals for changes to existing structures and construction of buildings based on the district's design guidelines.
The master plan, which exists in draft form, has not been completed or submitted to the County Council for approval, so its recommendations have not been debated or enacted.
"The real goal is not to stop all development, but to ensure that development meets the guidelines" of the commission, Kyler said.
He and his wife chose a home on 2.6 acres off Sylvan Lane five years ago because of what the historic district offered. "We started our family in this neighborhood because of what this neighborhood is -- small, quiet, uncongested," he said.