It took nearly four years of discussions between the builders and the community to reach the groundbreaking this spring for the Highland Crossing development of townhouse offices, a restaurant and retail space at Routes 216 and 108.
A group of Highland residents is eager to make future projects at the country crossroads go more smoothly.
The Greater Highland Community Association has developed a set of guidelines for building in the "downtown" area at the crossroads.
Those guidelines are not binding, said the association's president, Dan O'Leary, but they will let property owners know what kinds of things the community will support. He said the committee that assembled the guidelines believes "these would be an expression of the consensus of the community as to the look and feel of the whole thing."
Most business owners on those crossroads properties did not vote for the guidelines, concerned that voluntary suggestions could turn into something more problematic.
"All of us want Highland to stay beautiful," said George Boarman, owner of Boarman's Market, which has been at the crossroads for 51 years. But, he said, as he pursues plans to expand and update his store, "I need to have every avenue open to me. A lot of the guidelines ... just don't work."
The Greater Highland Community Association was born when the community rallied in opposition to plans by Kevin Bell and Donald Souder to build a funeral home on the northeast corner of the crossroads.
After that project was rejected by the county hearing examiner in 2003, the association continued to grow and take on new projects.
One committee began studying whether Highland should seek designation as a historic district. Its members decided to avoid the added layers of bureaucracy that come with that legal definition and create guidelines instead.
The final document incorporates previous recommendations by the Department of Planning and Zoning about how the area should look and more recent suggestions by the department about the streetscape.
It also incorporates ideas that arose in discussions with Bell and Souder as they pursued the Highland Crossing project, instead of their initial plan for a funeral home.
The final guidelines, which were approved at a meeting of the association Jan. 12, include buildings placed close to the road "to give it a small-town village atmosphere," O'Leary said.
That and a row of trees between the road and the sidewalk are intended to cause drivers to perceive the road to be narrow and slow down.
The document encourages buildings that take their style from the turn of the century, with peaked roofs and natural-looking materials. It recommends lights that do not illuminate nearby properties.
Ideally, individuals will incorporate the suggestions into their plans as a way to gain community support, O'Leary said. That, in turn, will help them move through the county approval process more quickly.
"The next step," he said, "is we have to think about how practically these will work, how we can promote their efficacy."
One significant change came toward the end of discussions, O'Leary said, when several business owners expressed concerns that the specificity of the guidelines could interfere with their ability to engineer the best plans for each lot.
"I thought we had understood these were voluntary," O'Leary said.
To make that clear, the group added a sentence to the preface recognizing that each property is unique and stating that where there is a discrepancy, "design requirements and common sense shall prevail."
Bell said the process "was exhaustive at times, and tedious at times for both the community members, the Highland Association and ourselves."
But, he said, "The sheer quantity of communication that went on led to ... a much better understanding of what everyone is trying to achieve."
He said he understands the guidelines might come in handy for people with future building projects.
"Had there been something out there that would have given some direction ... it could have shortened the process and the tedium for all involved," Bell said. "I think the amount of communication that started to occur created a trust, and once a trust was created we didn't look at them as the contentious community and they didn't look at us as the big bad developers. ... I honestly found there was give and take on both sides."
Other communities in Howard County have been working on ways to influence building projects, but the Highland document is "the most specific that I have seen," said Bill Mackey, a planning supervisor in the Division of Environmental and Community Planning.
"I think history is really important to them. The goal of these guidelines are to preserve the rural character of Highland," Mackey said.