As local development proposals face serious challenges on many fronts, a coalition has been formed to caution officials and the public to tread lightly or risk stifling economic expansion and harming Howard County's business climate.
The voice of the business community has been largely silent, at least publicly, on some of the most contentious issues facing the county, particularly the proposals to develop downtown Columbia into an urban center and to construct a luxury high-rise overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi.
But the coalition, called the Business Alliance, intends to leap into those and other issues, said Del Karfonta, executive vice president of The Columbia Bank.
"These are important issues. They are very important," Karfonta said. "That's why you have to have a focused agenda, a focused mission."
The group, which was formed late last month, is a derivative of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, of whose board of directors Karfonta is chairman.
Of immediate concern is legislation that would scuttle plans for The Plaza Residences of Columbia Town Center, a 275-foot-tall residential and retail complex.
The legislation, submitted by County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, would restrict the height of the tower to 150 feet, or even lower if a more rigid cap is enacted as part of a plan to develop downtown Columbia.
The 23-story retail and residential complex would be the tallest structure in the county, and its height has sparked opposition.
The proposed height restriction has been questioned because it would be imposed retroactively.
The developer, Florida-based WCI Communities Inc., last year cleared the county's regulatory process and has been granted all permits to build the tower, although construction has not begun.
"It's really an issue of right or wrong," said Karfonta, who noted that WCI has complied with all county regulations.
Enactment of the legislation, he said, would represent "changing the rules" after the fact and "be a signal of lack of predictability of doing business in Howard County."
Pamela J. Klahr, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, said the legislation goes beyond the tower.
"That bill is much further-reaching than this one issue," she said. "It's not height -- the bill is a retroactive one to stop this thing from being built.
"The fact is, if a bill can be introduced and made retroactive, regardless of what that is, what is that saying to any business that is either looking to move into the area or a business that's already here and wants to expand? It says perhaps the same thing would happen to them."
Sigaty's office did not respond to telephone and e-mail requests for an interview.
The chamber has a legislative component, but that effort is largely statewide. Karfonta said he believed an advocacy group was needed to focus on key development issues because they are vital to the county's growth and economic health.
"We wanted to make sure that the alliance had some representation as these areas continue to be developed," Karfonta said.
He said he preferred a separate group that could focus on development and "not distract" from the chamber's statewide efforts.
The county has identified five development areas where most of its growth should occur: Maple Lawn, Maryland; Turf Valley; Emerson; the U.S. 1 corridor; and downtown Columbia.
But there has been intense pressure to limit density, or the number of homes per acre, in Maple Lawn and Turf Valley, and that is also a central issue in the plan to convert downtown Columbia into an urban center.
Although the county intends to release a revised plan, the current proposal includes permitting 5,500 housing units downtown. Some, including County Executive Ken Ulman, have said 1,600 units would be more appropriate.
The Business Alliance, Karfonta said, has not adopted a position on density, especially with respect to Columbia.
"Density, at least in my opinion, depends on what is in the best interests of the community," he said. "I think we will wait until there is a formal plan. We have to deal only with facts."
The alliance, Karfonta said, will include major employers, developers, downtown Columbia property owners and other businessmen and women.