As the Howard County Zoning Board is poised to rule on the Rouse Co.'s petition to add a significant number of residences in downtown Columbia, County Council Democrats are sponsoring an amendment to the comprehensive rezoning bill that would alter the approval process for new development in Town Center.
The amendment would allow the Zoning Board -- whose members consist of the five councilmen -- to review changes to the comprehensive sketch plan in Town Center. Currently, the appointed members of the Planning Board determine such decisions.
County Councilman Ken Ulman, chairman of the Zoning Board, said Columbia's New Town zoning allows for "very little influence or authority" by the board. He said the council's Democrats -- Guy Guzzone, David A. Rakes and he -- want the board to have an "elevated role" in determining how new projects will be developed in Columbia's downtown.
"I believe that this is a significant deal," said Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat. "It sounds like minutiae, but what it means is that the Zoning Board/County Council will have a say in how projects are implemented, which we do in almost every other zone."
A public hearing on the amendment and others included in the comprehensive rezoning bill is scheduled at 7:30 p.m. today at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City. The hearing comes one day before the Zoning Board's work session, when it could rule on the Rouse Co.'s petition to add more than 2,141 residential units to Columbia.
The majority of those units are dedicated for Town Center, and Rouse officials hope the new residents will turn the area into a vibrant urban hub. The proposed development has sparked protests by many residents who fear the extra people will bring in more traffic and crime, and will put a strain on the 36-year-old planned community's infrastructure.
If the comprehensive rezoning amendment is accepted, the Zoning Board would have the option to approve any proposed development in Town Center. In this instance, the council would assume a similar role as it does when it acts as the Liquor Board, which hears cases it deems appropriate.
Ulman said when proposed development "rises to a level of critical importance as these decisions do in downtown," the elected officials should play a role in the implementation.
"We should have the option of hearing these [cases] and frankly holding [Rouse's] feet to the fire on having any new projects implemented in a way that really benefits the public," Ulman said.
Guzzone, who is chairman of the County Council, said his panel has an important opportunity with Town Center development.
"We have an opportunity to enhance it, to make it even better than it is, and I think we have a responsibility to make sure that whatever we do there, we do it very well," said Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. "And that may mean the council playing a larger role in its development over the next 10 years or so."
Dennis Miller, Rouse vice president and general manager of Columbia, would not comment on the amendment because the board has not ruled on the development company's petition.
Throughout eight hearings before the Zoning Board, many residents criticized Rouse for not submitting detailed plans about what it intends to build in the 60-acre, crescent-shaped property behind Symphony Woods in Town Center. They worry that the board will have no more authority on how Rouse develops the land if the petition is approved.
Mary Pivar, a Wilde Lake resident who has criticized Rouse's plan, said that the Zoning Board hearing Town Center development cases would be "constructive."
"That's reasonable and fair in a community that was supposed to have been planned all along," Pivar said.
E. Alexander Adams, a Glenwood attorney who is among the primary opponents in the Rouse case, said changing which body would rule on downtown developments is "basically a red herring." He predicted that the Zoning Board wouldn't wield any more power than the Planning Board.
"In my view, it's meaningless or at best a Band-Aid," Adams said.
But Guzzone said that such an interpretation is "a fairly narrow view of the authority of the council to act in these manners."
"It's very clear that the council has the authority to create the rules, and it's very clear the council has the authority to interpret the rules they've created," he said.