Howard County's west ought to remain much as it is and its far eastern corridor should transform into something very different, the local Planning Board believes.
After months of hearings and meetings, Howard's volunteer panel of citizen-planners has offered recommendations for comprehensively rezoning the county, agreeing with plans to revitalize the U.S. 1 corridor by rezoning hundreds of acres but looking askance at most requests from landowners to increase commercial operations in the rural west.
Those decisions are ultimately in the hands of the County Council. It will hold hearings this fall and expects to vote on new and changed zones by the end of the year.
Still, the Planning Board's recommendations - hashed out over a series of work sessions that ended this week - had been eagerly awaited by landowners and neighbors. They hoped the board would agree with their views because they believe the board's words will sway the council.
County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said it is helpful to have a citizen perspective from volunteers who have immersed themselves in planning issues. But he and County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, say the board's recommendation is only one factor they will consider.
"I certainly give it strong consideration, with the understanding that I may differ," Kittleman said, adding: "I'm glad that the final determination is by elected officials because they are held accountable at the voting box."
The Planning Board sifted through more than 130 rezoning requests for properties - or collections of properties - ranging from one-fourteenth of an acre to hundreds of acres. Members listened to hours of testimony from residents, landowners and attorneys, and they read through hundreds of letters and e-mails entreating them to support or oppose zoning changes.
"Someone might be disappointed in one way or another, but we tried to do what's best for the county in the long run, which really is the point of comprehensive rezoning," said board member Linda Dombrowski of Ellicott City.
Quite a few property owners probably are disappointed because the board - with a few exceptions - recommended against the many requests to rezone residential land for commercial use in Howard's rural west. The board noted that the county's 2000 General Plan, a blueprint for growth, is not in favor of expanding commercial zones beyond the existing business crossroads.
"There should be a rural feel in the rural west," said Steve Johns, a county planner helping to coordinate comprehensive rezoning efforts.
The board made an exception for a stone quarry on Marriottsville Road in Marriottsville, which wants industrial zoning on a little less than an acre of its nearly 18-acre property to permit stone-cutting work.
Elsewhere, the board reserved the right to come back later on one of the most controversial cases - a series of requests to rezone about 32 acres along Montgomery Road in Ellicott City, opposite Long Gate shopping center. Neighbors say the corridor is too commercialized and does not need any more businesses, while the landowners say it is no place for homes.
Noting that the school system is negotiating for land near the road for an elementary school, the board decided that a recommendation would be premature.
The panel advised approval of the three "revitalization zones" proposed for the U.S. 1 corridor and agreed with nearly all the Department of Planning and Zoning's original suggestions for where those zones should go, a change that would affect about 1,500 acres on Howard's eastern edge.
Members believed, however, that the new "transit-oriented development" zone - which allows a mix of apartments and businesses - was not appropriate for land around the Jessup MARC station because the existing businesses do not appear to be ripe for redevelopment.
Most of the land in question is zoned for heavy industrial uses. The board recommended leaving that M-2 zone and extending it to Sharewood Acres, a residential island near the station.
"Obviously there's still development and change potential in the county, and people are now looking for opportunities to develop areas that had not been looked at before," Dombrowski said.
Information: Department of Planning and Zoning, 410-313-2350.