While Howard County leaders ponder how to comprehensively rezone land, residents, developers and others with something to gain or lose will converge at a meeting Monday night for their first chance to publicly make their cases.
The county Planning Board, a volunteer panel of citizens, will take testimony for four hours that night and quite likely for another four hours Wednesday evening.
It is a key early step in the once-a-decade process that rearranges development patterns, influencing everything from the tax base to the type of building that might rise next door.
People have more power now to influence the direction of their neighborhoods than later, when the specific development proposals come in, noted Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county's interim planning director.
"Once the zoning is set, it gives certain rights," she said.
After the hearings, Planning Board members will recommend zoning changes to the County Council, which probably will vote on a final plan at the end of the year.
More than 100 zoning changes have been proposed in every corner of the county, including substantial ones envisioned along the aging U.S. 1 corridor. A citizens committee suggested new zones along and near the highway that would encourage a more intensive use of the land, now dotted with junkyards, storage facilities, auto shops and other developments that spread out rather than up.
County planners are supporting nearly two-thirds of the rezoning requests made by property owners, developers and others, but the Planning Board will consider everything.
Members expect to hear an earful Monday.
"We know it's going to be very well attended," said Linda Dombrowski, an Ellicott City resident who is on the panel.
George Paytas is planning to be there - at 5 p.m., a half-hour before the sign-up sheets go out, in case there is a line. The retired resident of Beaverbrook, a Columbia outparcel, has sent e-mail to more than 150 neighbors to encourage them to attend the meeting and speak out about plans to rezone two properties at the edge of their community on Route 108.
A developer has asked that the residentially zoned parcels be changed to commercial. Paytas, a member of the Beaverbrook Community Association board, is firmly against the idea because he fears it would add to the already "horrendous" traffic on Route 108 and cause other problems.
"That is a major, major change, and we just don't want it," he said.
The hearing Monday is scheduled at 7 p.m. at the county's George Howard Building, 3430 Court House Drive, Ellicott City, and will continue Wednesday at the same time and place to handle overflow.
People who intend to testify should sign up Monday, McLaughlin said.
Those who want to offer comments in writing can do so then, or they can submit their comments by March 17 to the Planning Board, in care of the Department of Planning and Zoning, 3430 Court House Drive, or e-mail email@example.com.