An otherwise routine application to add nearly 120 acres to Turf Valley, the luxury planned community in western Howard County, is likely to be the springboard for a full assault on the county's zoning process.
A coalition - composed largely of residents in and near Turf Valley - that for two years has opposed expansion plans for the development, intends to step up its attack by putting the spotlight on the five-member Planning Board and challenging it to go beyond what regulations demand of developers.
The board is scheduled Wednesday night to consider a request to add 119.7 acres to Turf Valley. About 100 of those acres would be in the residential area of the development, with the balance in the mixed-used district. If approved, the additional land would expand the project to about 809 acres.
The application also seeks to:
Phase in an additional 267 housing units between 2008 and 2015. Turf Valley is zoned for 1,351 units.
Relocate seven golf holes to the residential areas of the development to act as buffers for residents and to open up land in the multiuse district for future development.
The application does not include questions of density, or the number of units per acre, changes in design or the height of buildings - issues that dominated discussions about Turf Valley for most of last year.
The board has been a "rubber stamp" for homebuilders, and the county engages in "blank check" zoning, says Marc Norman, co-chairman of the coalition and a Turf Valley resident.
Louis Mangione, vice president of Mangione Family Enterprises, the owner and developer of Turf Valley, said critics are seeking any mechanism to obstruct and delay.
"I don't believe that they are trying to focus on good planning at all," Mangione said. "They are focusing on the negative aspects of anything and everything ... with the sole goal of delay."
Planning Board members are barred from commenting on zoning issues before them, but the chairman of the County Council, Guy Guzzone, said any suggestion that homebuilders are treated with kid gloves is erroneous.
"We have reams of regulations for development," Guzzone said. "It wasn't 15, 20 years ago, that the county allowed 4,000 homes a year. We cut that dramatically, to 1,750 now."
Norman said his group will attempt to force the Planning Board to require Mangione to submit a detailed plan of his company's intentions for Turf Valley.
"GGP has set the bar," Norman said, referring to General Growth Properties Inc., which in May held a public forum on its proposals for downtown Columbia. "They gave a three-hour detailed presentation ... with traffic analysis, pedestrian usage and urban planning.
"We're asking, for starters, that we have an honest, open, intelligent conversation on what the true project will be. ... They should be looking at the inter-relations so we can assess the roads impact, schools, environment and fiscal impact."
For two years, some residents asked the Rouse Co. and then GGP, after its acquisition of Rouse, to reveal its plans. GGP finally agreed to do so, although it was under no obligation to comply.
Mangione said providing the details of Turf Valley at this time is impossible. "We don't even know what we're going to do precisely over the next 10 years," he said.
Although Mangione's application is limited in scope, Norman senses an opportunity to demand that the Planning Board broaden its review considerably.
"They can require anything they want," he said. "The Planning Board will now bear sole responsibility for the planning and ultimate build-out of Turf Valley. ... It will be their testimonial and legacy."
Norman is seemingly emboldened by two developments. The first is the successful petition drive to place a referendum on the ballot next year challenging zoning changes approved as part of the county's Comp Lite process.
The second is the Planning Board's rejection in January of Mangione's request for higher density in Turf Valley.
"In the past, both in Columbia and in Turf Valley, the Planning Board has rubber-stamped applications for 20 years," Norman said. "With new leadership and new membership, we've seen a change from the old status quo.
"The board members are actively involved, asking insightful questions and raising pertinent issues that shows that they have a grasp of what is happening."
Mangione said his critics are interested only in stopping Turf Valley from progressing.
"Nothing that they do surprises me anymore," he said. "They're just trying to distract everybody else from doing good planning by sensationalizing things. They make all kinds of negative comments, but no positive suggestions."
Guzzone said he understands the frustrations of those who complain about the zoning granted to Turf Valley 20 years ago, but he said the county must be careful about violating commitments.
"They're asking government to go back on the agreement that was made in the past," he said. "People in government are uncomfortable with ... the essence of going back on what someone else has previously given [developers] approval for."