Driving U.S. 1 is like watching a kaleidoscope without color: bleak.
Flanked liberally for stretches at a time by an odd assortment of manufacturers, truck depots, old motels, storage yards, low-end retailers, aging housing and vacant lots, the thoroughfare suffers from years of neglect.
"It developed over a long period of time and with varying standards and also varying levels of maintenance," said Dace L. Blaumanis, a planner with the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning. "It has, at best, an uneven appearance."
The county, in conjunction with the business community and U.S. 1 residents, began studying four years ago how to revitalize the almost 11-mile stretch. While still in the embryonic stage, those efforts face an early challenge.
A businessman is seeking creation of a zoning classification for a large swath of land fronting U.S. 1, which would provide him with the option to decide later what to develop on the now-vacant property.
The issue is sensitive, putting the county's desire to spur renewal along U.S. 1 in conflict with its desire to ensure equal treatment of people and to keep regulations standardized.
But it also illustrates that property owners and developers, while willing to gamble to some degree, expect protections for their investments.
The land, encompassing slightly more than 76 acres, is zoned for light manufacturing and warehouses.
The property owner, Bluestream LLC, one of several holdings by Arnold Sagner, has asked the county to create a zone that would combine current uses with those permitted for corridor activity centers.
CAC zoning was adopted specifically to help revitalize U.S. 1 and permits a mixture of retail, commercial and housing.
The county generally prefers to avoid mixed uses on property. But in the case of U.S. 1, a task force believed there were locations where combining functions would help rejuvenate the corridor.
"The idea was that ... there could be a concentrated residential area accompanied with local commercial uses," said Blaumanis, who worked for two years with the county-appointed task force to recommend ways to revitalize the area and which proposed creation of CAC zoning. That zoning has proved more popular than the county envisioned.
"I think the property owners and developers are eager for residential development because that is currently hot," Blaumanis said. "They believe it will make economic sense for them right now."
The county is formally reviewing three proposals from developers, and others are in earlier stages of discussion.
Bluestream's property is near a flea market, about one mile north of where U.S. 1 and Route 175 intersect.
Sagner is eager to consider developing his property under CAC but wants the protection of being permitted to revert to already county-approved plans for manufacturing/warehouses, or M-1, his attorney, Richard Talkin, recently told the Howard County Planning Board.
Talkin told the board that owners of two adjacent properties may be willing to coordinate development of the land, which, combined, would be roughly 100 acres.
The new zone, Talkin said in a public hearing, "would give the owner the option to develop either as CAC or M-1."
"Part of the problem," he added, "has been how do we get the people together to coordinate development? ... We have an opportunity here to transform Route 1 and to make it tremendously attractive and viable and exciting. These opportunities are not going to come along very often."
While willing to delay his plans to explore the possibilities under CAC, Sagner wants protection. "If this doesn't work out," Talkin told the board, "at least he knows he's got this development and can proceed."
The idea, though, has created a tug of war between the need to revitalize U.S. 1 and the desire for uniformity.
"The idea of zoning is to give a certain kind of hierarchy or order to the arrangement of land," said Blaumanis, who spoke generally and not specifically about Sagner's property.
The Department of Planning and Zoning believes the property should simply be zoned CAC.
Planning Director Marsha L. McLaughlin says there are two essential problems with approving Bluestream's request: It would represent inconsistent application of regulations and procedures, as well as opening the door to deviating from the county's expressed desire to create mix-use centers along parts of U.S. 1.
"Parts of Route 1 are older, dysfunctional ... [and] obsolete," she said. "We want to encourage people going very clearly in that [CAC] direction."
The Planning Board deadlocked 2-2 on whether to recommend approval of Bluestream's proposal.
Planning Board Chairman Gary L. Kaufman said the new zone would "clean the area up, and that's what we're trying to do."
The issue will ultimately be decided by the County Council. A possible outcome is to rezone the property CAC but to give Bluestream its wish by grandfathering M-1 uses into its property because of the time and money already invested in developing its plans.
County officials say that would be equitable for Bluestream. But if the property is not developed as hoped for, they acknowledge it also could mean that the opportunity of combining about 100 acres and reshaping a sizable stretch of U.S. 1 will be lost.