For four decades, development in Columbia has been governed by a special set of rules, created to give flexibility to town founder James W. Rouse and his company as they transformed farmland into a thriving town.
Now - as the last, crucial pieces of land in Columbia are being developed - the Howard County Council is considering whether those old rules are still a good idea. Council members discussed revising the rules, called New Town Zoning, last night before about 35 people.
"The process enabled us to have a great city," said Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat. "But I don't think downtown in recent years has been developed well."
The future of downtown Columbia may depend on what revisions the council decides to make.
A year ago, the council - which also acts as the Zoning Board - unanimously rejected a proposal by the former Rouse Co. to build more residential units in Columbia. Many of the residences were planned for the last significant undeveloped property in heart of downtown Columbia - the crescent-shaped tract adjacent to Merriweather Post Pavilion.
In eight hearings held over four months, the proposal faced fierce opposition from residents who feared more residential units would generate more crime and traffic and put stress on the community's infrastructure.
Since then, residents and community leaders have argued that a master plan should be drafted for downtown before any new developments are approved. Legislation that would revise New Town Zoning could require such a master plan.
Last night, a majority of the council seemed to favor the master-plan approach, but at least two members voiced reservations.
"I think it's a good idea," said Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon, "but the thing that may be tricky is creating a master plan for property that's owned by someone else."
Charles C. Feaga, a western county Republican, also expressed mixed feelings about revising New Town Zoning. "I'm wondering about what we're trying to do by changing it," he said.
The Columbia Association has volunteered to lead the effort to draft a master plan through an intense summit, called a charrette, which would be held over seven consecutive days.
But General Growth Properties Inc., which bought the Rouse Co. and acquired its land in Columbia, has not said whether it would participate. General Growth holds the majority of the remaining undeveloped land in Columbia.
At the end of last night's meeting, the council agreed to request presentations from outside experts on master planning and to schedule a joint meeting with the Planning Board on the matter.
Ulman also raised the possibility of toughening the requirements for members of the county's Planning Board, whose members are appointed by the county executive.
On many zoning and development issues, Planning Board decisions serve as recommendations for the County Council, which often makes the final decisions. But because of New Town Zoning rules, many Columbia development projects require only Planning Board approval.
"In Columbia, you're ceding a lot of power and authority to people who are not elected," Ulman said. "I want to see more requirements for expertise on the board."
In other action, the County Council held the first of three hearings on 42 rezoning proposals elsewhere in the county - most concentrated along the U.S. 40 corridor from Patapsco State Park on the east to Turf Valley on the west.
Last night's session was for 17 of the 42 rezoning proposals deemed noncontroversial by county planners. Another session on U.S. 40 issues will be held Tuesday, and the third, on Turf Valley, is scheduled for Jan. 27, both at 7 p.m. in the council chambers in the George Howard Building.
The next County Council meeting on New Town Zoning issues has not been scheduled.