Rezoning proposal focusing on U.S. 1


Howard County planners are recommending new uses for more than 2,300 acres as the maturing county embarks on a key part of its transition from fast growth to redevelopment.

Their proposal for comprehensively rezoning Howard - a once-a-decade practice that can send waves of change to communities - is culled from dozens of requests from property owners and developers. Planners agreed with some, disagreed with some and altered others.

This initial plan focuses on the aging U.S. 1 corridor but would also bring new potential uses to land in western Howard, Ellicott City, Elkridge and Columbia. It will be debated and revised for months before the County Council finally sets the zoning at the end of the year.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, Howard's interim planning director, said her department's recommendations for U.S. 1 would help see through a task force's vision of the corridor with more business parks and homes and - eventually - fewer junkyards and strip centers.

"It's a pretty bold change," McLaughlin said. "There will be many existing businesses that don't necessarily fit into this vision very clearly. We expect those businesses to remain; we expect those businesses to want to expand over time. That's just fine - no one is attempting to magically change the corridor overnight."

The planners recommended rezoning about 1,900 acres along and near U.S. 1, most of it directly in line with suggestions made by the task force. Those include proposals to create new zones for most of the land along the highway to encourage business parks; for a few sections next to the road to permit a mix of retail and housing; and for properties around the four MARC commuter rail stations at the county line to allow a mix of offices and high-density housing.

Some of the other recommendations from planners include:

Changing about 20 acres along Montgomery Road in Ellicott City from residential to a variety of business zones. Neighbors successfully fought off similar changes in earlier years, but McLaughlin said a portion of the new zones would simply allow a church and a YMCA to expand, and remaining land would be too small for anything as large as the proposed big-box home improvement center that riled residents earlier.

"The intent is clearly to do things that are locally oriented retail," she said.

Rezoning 15 acres along Frederick Road in Lisbon from "general business" to "local business" in the hope of protecting historic buildings in town from being torn down for gas stations, fast-food restaurants and other sizable developments.

Rezoning four properties on Cedar Lane in Columbia, all outparcels not governed by Columbia's covenants. Two parcels - 5 acres suggested for office zoning and 6 acres suggested for clustered housing - are across the road from Hickory Ridge Village Center. Roughly 27 acres near Route 32 is proposed for zoning 15 units an acre, generally used for apartments.

Rezoning a cluster of residential properties near Routes 100 and 103 in Elkridge. A zone generally used to develop townhomes is recommended for two parcels totaling 32 acres, and office zoning - which can also be used to build seniors-only homes - is suggested for 13 acres.

Rezoning 32 acres near Route 103 and Interstate 95 in Elkridge from residential to a zoning category that allows offices or seniors-only homes. McLaughlin said a history of illegal dumping on the land made her leery of houses meant for families being built there.

Most of the landowners' requests that planners declined to recommend for changes - roughly 175 acres in all - asked for business zoning instead of residential. Those owners can still make their case to the powers that be.

Planners also recommend changes to zoning regulations. A key one would require more developers to price 10 percent of their homes for "moderate-income" people earning less than $55,000 a year. Fifteen percent of residences built in the new U.S. 1 zones would have to be earmarked for moderate-income buyers.

McLaughlin characterized most of the proposed changes outside the U.S. 1 area as "basically fine tuning," but she realizes that residents living immediately around properties where change could be imminent may not see it that way. She said planners are scheduled to speak to some community associations about their recommendations and are happy to meet with others.

Chuck Casey, president of the Willowood Neighborhood Association in Elkridge, near several of the properties recommended for changes, said he is personally in favor of the current single-family-home zoning and intends to oppose the recommendations for offices and attached homes - especially if the developers decide to build apartments instead of townhomes.

"I'd love to keep the area as much residential in nature as possible," Casey said. "I don't have a problem with townhomes, although the more townhomes that go in, the more overcrowded our schools are. It's certainly better than apartments. I don't want to hear the word 'apartment.' "

The county Planning Board will hold a public hearing on comprehensive rezoning March 10 and will make its recommendations after a second hearing in June. The County Council will hold hearings in the fall.

McLaughlin warned residents to pay attention because neighborhoods that are not touched now may be included later as people discuss the pros and cons of changes.

"It's important that people understand it's the beginning of the process," she said. "It's going to be the end of the year before things get decided."

To see the rezoning proposals, log on to us/DPZ/compzoning.htm.

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