The Rouse Co., which transformed thousands of acres of farmland into its model community of Columbia, has long been Howard County's dominant developer.
But the county Zoning Board's denial last week of the Rouse Co.'s proposal to add a significant number of residences in Columbia's downtown - in an effort to urbanize Town Center - is the second big defeat for the developer in recent years.
In 2000, the Columbia Association turned down the annexation of the company's Emerson development into Columbia, choosing not to provide the area with its traditional amenities, including a swimming pool, parks and walking paths.
The company also stands to lose money with a bill proposed by Del. Elizabeth Bobo that seeks to tax Columbia's undeveloped land an extra $500,000 to raise money for school construction.
The cases bring into question whether the Zoning Board's unanimous decision is the latest sign that Rouse's power is ebbing.
"The first crack in the perception and reality of Columbia being a company town, the first crack was the Rouse Co.'s loss of the annexation vote," said Alex Hekimian, president of the citizen watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia. "The Zoning Board [decision] is another example of how people simply just want to be unshackled from the company town mentality and the company town control."
Bobo, a Howard County Democrat, applauded the board's decision but said she doesn't think Rouse has lost its influence. Instead, she said, the company is "making different proposals that are not in the best interest long term for this community."
Rouse's Town Center plan, which aimed to increase Columbia's density to its maximum, would have resulting in an additional 2,141 residences. About 1,600 of them were to be developed in the 60-acre, crescent-shaped property behind Symphony Woods.
On Wednesday, the Zoning Board denied the company's request with some board members explaining that they were not comfortable granting the petition without a detailed comprehensive sketch plan, which was not required as part of the proposal.
As a result of the petition, the county will examine Columbia's New Town zoning regulations, drafted in the 1960s. After a citizens committee reviews and revises the regulations, which County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone estimated could be done within four or five months, Rouse can again petition to increase Columbia's density.
Dennis Miller, Rouse vice president and general manager of Columbia, said the company was disappointed with the board's decision. He said he is unsure whether the company will seek greater density.
"It's premature to predict what the future holds at this time," he said.
Steven H. Adler, general partner of Savage Mills, is certain Rouse will try again.
"I can promise you from their perspective, they don't give up," he said. "When they have a vision, they keep working the system. They are successful for a reason."
Lloyd Knowles, a former county councilman, said the board gave Rouse ample consideration through eight hearings that began in July, including one that lasted until after 4 a.m. He supported the decisions by the Columbia Council and the Zoning Board.
"I think the history has pretty much been when [Rouse] asked for things that improve the quality of the community, they're granted," he said. "And when they're not, they're not granted."
Rouse has other development projects in Town Center, including the Governor's Grant townhomes by The Mall in Columbia, which is to contain 127 homes with prices starting at more than $300,000.
Nearby, a 156-unit "active adult" apartment complex is being constructed on 5 acres. Near Lake Kittamaqundi, Ryland Homes is scheduled to build a four- or five-story condominium complex. Adjacent to that site, a high-rise is proposed that could be 18 to 22 stories with condominiums and 10,000 square feet of commercial space.
Zoning Board Chairman Ken Ulman said at Wednesday's board meeting that those will contribute to significant residential growth in Columbia's downtown and that he wants to see what impact those residents will have on the town's infrastructure.
"With additional units approved by this body, what traffic improvements will be needed? Will parking be possible at the Central Library?" he asked. "Will the existing Banneker fire station need expansion? Will additional school capacity be needed?"
E. Alexander Adams, a Glenwood attorney who was one of the primary Rouse opponents, speculated that the company viewed its quest for increased density as a lottery and expected to get most of what it asked for. He predicted that the company will eventually be granted higher density.
"I think the board needs to see the whites of their eyes, the details of their plan, before they approve it," Adams said.