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Housing bill is on hold

The Baltimore Sun

A proposal to change Howard County's zoning laws to allow the Housing Commission to build more affordable-housing units on commercial land ran into a buzz saw of opposition at a Planning Board meeting from leaders of two prominent civic groups and a crowd of western Ellicott City residents. Their opposition last year doomed a similar project.

The Planning Board will discuss the issue again Aug. 23.

Affordable-housing advocates favor the bill, but most of the standing-room-only crowd of about 50 people at the meeting Thursday night at the George Howard Building were opposed.

"You're creating a ghetto," Ted Baruch told the board.

Patrick Crowe said the bill would allow "low-income high-rises" up to eight stories on parcels as small as 2 acres - something county officials said was not possible with the setback requirements in the bill.

As a result of the strong opposition, the board postponed a vote on the issue, frustrating county officials hopes of introducing the measure as a County Council bill in September.

The board also delayed until next month consideration of an idea that drew unanimous public support at the hearing after being trumpeted by the Ulman administration - a bill to create a design review panel for all new buildings. Some speakers disagreed on details, such as whether the panel should include residents along with professional architects, engineers and planners.

The board unanimously approved plans for a long-awaited $10.5 million office building at Oakland Mills Village Center and for a 14,000- square-foot building for the Baltimore Seventh-day Adventist Korean Church on Grace Drive, near Cedar Lane.

The housing bill was portrayed by Stephen Lafferty, deputy county planning director, as "part of a cleanup effort of the Moderate Income Housing Unit program." Housing Director Stacy L. Spann said it is needed for a limited purpose that would affect a small number of projects.

Spann argued that the county Housing Commission has the right to build subsidized units on commercial land it that owns but needs the change in law to obtain state and federal tax credits in partnership with private developers. Current law does not allow such partnerships.

At the same time, the bill proposes height and setback limits for any residential buildings on commercial land - standards that now do not exist. The bill would require a site of at least 2 acres, and height would be limited to 50 feet - about four stories - or to 80 feet with an additional 60 feet of setback. Lafferty said an eight-story building would not physically fit on a lot as small as 2 acres under the proposal.

Spann said the bill would provide an extra tool to get more affordable housing. "We want these projects to blend into the community," he said.

Leaders of the county League of Women Voters and the Howard County Citizens Association opposed the bill. Grace Kubofcik of the league and Bridget R. Mugane of HCCA said provisions allowing Housing Commission projects on commercial land in a variety of zones would limit public comment too severely.

They favor allowing such projects using the conditional-use process, which requires more advertising and a public hearing. But Spann said that would not work because no developer could get the required tax credits for a project uncertain to win approval using such a long process.

Ellicott City residents who last year opposed Centennial Gardens - a proposed 59-unit, four-story subsidized apartment complex on a 2.5-acre site on Frederick Road near Centennial Lane - were out in force to block the bill.

They had complained that Centennial Gardens' four-story building would be too big, and that the subsidized apartments would hurt the community. The project was eventually killed by opposition from County Executive Ken Ulman, who said he wants subsidized units sprinkled among new homes selling at market prices, not concentrated in one place.

"This would allow Centennial Gardens to go ahead," Crowe said after the hearing.

John Lederer, a leader of the group, said residents resent that the county has allowed builders of upscale new communities such as Maple Lawn to divert required moderate-income units to other areas. He said he and others are not opposed to subsidized homes or apartments but to the way the county is trying to build them.

Every speaker at Thursday's meeting supported the design panel concept.

The five-member volunteer panel would be advisory but could make recommendations on whether a proposed development fits harmoniously into an existing neighborhood and is attractive. If not, the panel, made up of architects, engineers and planners, could suggest ways of achieving those goals.

"I've been to the Columbia Crossing Shopping Center at Dobbin Road and Route 175 on a warm summer day," said Mugane, who testified in favor of the panel. "When you get out of your car and walk to the Target store, it's a soul-chilling wasteland."

"Waves of heat" rise from the asphalt parking lot, and the buildings are "ugly," she said. A design panel might have prevented such development.

The Metroventures Inc. mixed-use retail-office building in Oakland Mills is called Meridian Place and is to be nearly 60,000 square feet in a structure of three and four floors. It is to rise on a 1.7-acre site that once held the village center's gas station, which closed in 1999. The lot has been vacant for several years.


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