County board rejects Rouse's downtown plan

On a unanimous vote, the Howard County Zoning Board rejected last night a Rouse Co. proposal to add a significant number of residences in Columbia's downtown.

The board said it wanted to study and possibly modify Columbia's New Town zoning regulations before allowing a major change to the planned community's urban center.


Board Chairman Ken Ulman said the county will appoint a citizens committee to do an in-depth analysis of Columbia's zoning regulations, which were drafted in the 1960s, and the development company was welcome to submit another petition if the zoning regulations are revised.

"I do believe a vibrant downtown is a desirable goal and that residential density is a critical factor in achieving that goal," said Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat. "But I do not believe this is the appropriate time to approve such a dramatic increase."


Ulman said he would be uncomfortable granting the company's request to increase Columbia's density, resulting in an additional 2,141 residential units, without a detailed, comprehensive draft plan of what the development would look like. About 1,600 of those units were to be developed in the 60-acre, crescent-shaped property behind Symphony Woods in Town Center.

It was estimated that the new residences would add 2,352 people to Town Center, which has a population of 4,265 -- a move that Rouse officials had hoped would turn the area into an active urban core.

Ulman said he and other board members had tried to persuade Rouse to make additions to its petition, such as a master plan for pedestrian access or converting Symphony Woods into a type of central park. But he noted that the New Town zoning process makes such conditions "awkward" at the current stage in the process.

Ulman said the parcel behind Symphony Woods -- now zoned for commercial use and the last major part of Town Center that could be developed -- presents the board "with a unique opportunity and a special responsibility to ensure that it is developed in a manner appropriate to the vision and sprit of Columbia."

"Once this area is developed, it will help shape the future of Columbia and the county for years to come," he said.

Other board members questioned Rouse's fiscal impact study, which concluded that the county could gain as much as $78.7 million by 2017 from the proposed development.

Board member Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said the study "didn't make sense, it was contrary to what you would believe."

"Businesses generate a lot of taxes and require very little services," he said.


The board's decision surprised many residents who had protested the company's petition, worried that the extra population would have generated more crime and too much traffic for the area, and stress the community's infrastructure.

Resident Mary Pivar of Wilde Lake said she was happy the board understands the importance of the parcel by Symphony Woods, and that the area needs to be developed in a "holistic way."

E. Alexander Adams, a Glenwood attorney who has been one of the primary opponents, said he was pleased the county will be looking into revising the New Town zoning regulations.

"I'm glad they did what was the best for Howard County," he said.

The board heard testimony on the issue through eight hearings that began in July, with the final session in November lasting until after 4 a.m.

Merdon said last night that the board could have approached the matter differently by letting Rouse know earlier in the process that the board was uncomfortable with the zoning regulations.


But Ulman said he did not know, going into the hearings, how he was going to feel about the zoning process. He said he considered granting Rouse part of its density request, and tried to address concerns by sponsoring an amendment to the comprehensive rezoning bill -- on which the council is scheduled to vote next month -- that would alter the approval process for Town Center development.

However, last night Ulman said he would support withdrawing the amendment in light of the board's decision to study the zoning process.

Part of Rouse's petition included 150 residential units for Oakland Mills. Rouse had agreed to separate that project from the rest of the petition, and on Jan. 5 the board approved 96 of the units -- as apartments for senior citizens at the village's shopping center.