Howard County to weigh reform of rezoning process


Howard County's recently completed, two-year countywide rezoning has produced so many complaints and so much backlash -- including an angry referendum-recall drive -- that county officials have headed back to the drawing board for ways to reform the process.

Said new Planning Board member David Grabowski: "People got flat-out tired. It got drug out too long."

This year's bill sought to change uses on about 40 parcels, mostly along the U.S. 40 corridor. It followed the general comprehensive rezoning last year, which meant interested residents had to attend a string of public meetings and watch late-breaking developments for many months.

Part of the problem, some suggested, came from deferring contested issues from the first year's review and adding them to a second "Comp Lite" bill that also included an examination of changes proposed for the U.S. 40 corridor. That bill was approved in March -- and sparked the residents' revolt.

Ideas such as better notification, earlier deadlines on new proposals, community-based rezoning instead of a countywide process, and more frequent reviews are getting the most attention.

But County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, and Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, warned at a recent discussion between the council and the Planning Board that fixing these complex processes isn't always easy.

"Reform is a funny thing -- it cuts in several ways," Guzzone observed, referring to a campaign in 1994, born of citizen complaints, that changed the County Charter.

Voters moved the comprehensive rezoning process from the legalistic county Zoning Board to the County Council -- thus making it subject to referendum or the executive's veto.

Now, residents unhappy with the way the County Council decided several issues -- including rezoning for an extension of Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church -- are waiting to hear whether the nearly 8,000 signatures they gathered on a petition will be successful in forcing the recent omnibus zoning bill onto next year's election ballot.

There is another, underlying issue, too, said Planning Board member Linda Dombrowski.

"Right now, we've got a split," she said, between people who want to live in a bedroom community and those willing to accept a more urban, cosmopolitan future for Howard County. Many who signed the petition, organizers said, are resentful of increasing traffic congestion and "infill" development of houses on every vacant lot.

Ulman said people might not like some council decisions in the bills, but they can't claim members haven't listened.

"I get very angry when I hear people say 'They didn't listen,'" he said. "This was an incredibly open process."

And Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a western county Republican who voted with the 4-1 majority on this year's zoning bill, worried that grouping dozens of rezoning changes in one bill is a problem when one incendiary issue sparks a referendum that could negate all the changes.

"How far can you go to hold a project up?" he said.

But new reforms could also create new problems, some members pointed out.

Possible problems

Splitting the county into smaller areas for community-based master plans -- advocated by Guzzone and Ulman -- could exclude a broad countywide perspective. And early deadlines could bar needed changes or last-minute County Council participation.

Early deadlines are fine, said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, as long as council members also get to have their say.

"We are the decision-makers," Merdon said. "We should have the right to be included in the process."

"A deadline is important," said Planning Board member H. Gregory Tornatore. "It should precede a council vote by several months."

That also was a complaint voiced by those involved in the petition drive because residents trying to follow the long process felt overwhelmed, especially at the end, several said.

Decisions and pressure

"Haphazard decisions that dramatically increase growth put incredible pressure on our already overcrowded schools and infrastructure," said Mary Catherine Cochran, a community activist who helped collect referendum signatures.

Her western Ellicott City community got what leaders wanted from the council -- preservation of homes as residentially zoned properties, despite pressure to rezone for business or transitional uses because of their proximity to busy U.S. 40.

That success worries her, too, she said.

"Can elected officials make unbiased zoning decisions?" she said.

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