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County advances zoning review


The Howard County Council plans to appoint by next month a citizens committee to begin reviewing the New Town zoning that controls Columbia's development - but the county's business community is worried about the idea.

The council members, who act as the county Zoning Board, rejected last month Rouse Co.'s requested rezoning of commercial land in Columbia's Town Center that would have allowed 1,600 more housing units. In rejecting the changes, board Chairman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said the county wants an in-depth analysis of Columbia's zoning rules, which were drafted when the town was planned in the 1960s.

Council members discussed setting up the committee, its schedule and scope at a monthly administrative meeting yesterday in Ellicott City attended by Kara Calder, president and chief executive officer of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce - but not by Dennis W. Miller, a Rouse vice president and general manager of Columbia.

"I didn't know they were going to have that discussion," Miller said, noting that he is still waiting for the written Zoning Board order to become available for study.

"There's yet to be a decision and order on the case, but they're moving forward," he said. "The sequence of these events I find disturbing."

Calder said that reviewing the entire legal foundation of Columbia's land uses "at the tail end" of the Rouse Co. rezoning case "gives the chamber a bit of concern."

Suggesting a broad zoning review of Columbia in that way, she said, seems to change the rules of doing business without any warning.

"Predictability is so important in business," Calder said.

Ulman agreed, but criticized the chamber for not taking a more active role in the issue until now.

"Where has the Chamber of Commerce been through this whole process?" he asked, noting that he has 25 requests from people who want to serve on the committee - but none from the chamber. "I would have thought the chamber would have contacted me about this."

What was clear after the long deliberations on the Rouse rezoning, he said, is "we don't have the tools in place to make intelligent decisions on these types of cases." That's why a committee review is needed, he said.

Ulman said the business community is welcome to participate, but New Town zoning affects only one business: the Rouse Co.

During the council discussion, Ulman said he envisions a group of perhaps nine members, with one representative from the Rouse Co. and other members appointed by either the County Council or County Executive James N. Robey.

The committee would work into summer, the council members suggested, and come up with recommended changes that could be included in a larger round of rezonings to be introduced in September, according to council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

Known among the members as "comp light," the next round of rezoning would amount to issues left out of the once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning of the county that the council approved Feb. 2. Land use along U.S. 40 and the Columbia issue likely will dominate the next review.

Councilman David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat, asked whether the council has set limits or goals for the committee review.

Ulman said it could be a wide-ranging, "comprehensive effort."

Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon said, "If you take that to the extreme, you could scrap New Town zoning altogether and put county zoning on it [Columbia land], or you could tweak the regulations that exist now."

The council also received the Charter Review Commission's report, which suggests 23 mostly minor changes to the county's constitution. The one likely to spark the most controversy would make it harder to petition a law to referendum by requiring at least 5 percent of registered county voters to sign. The existing requirement is 5 percent or 5,000 registered voters. The 5 percent requirement would mean about 7,900 signatures would be needed.

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