A contested zoning change designed to open the way for Ellicott Gardens, a proposed 106-unit subsidized apartment house in Ellicott City, is advancing to the Howard County Council after being approved by the Planning Board on a 2-1 vote.
The change would allow the Housing Commission to join with private investors to build on commercially zoned land. It is strongly supported by affordable-housing advocates and county officials, but opposed by a group of Ellicott City residents and civic groups who say such projects could harm residential neighborhoods and, at the least, should get more public scrutiny.
The measure, approved by board members David Grabowski and Gary Rosenbaum and opposed by Linda Dombrowski, was revised to help satisfy residents' objections.
Board member Ramsey Alexander attended the meeting but did not vote because he had missed the board's hearing on the bill two weeks ago. The fifth member, Tammy Citaramanis, was absent.
"I just thought too much work needs to be done," Dombrowski said after the Thursday night meeting.
Grabowski worried aloud about the potential loss of commercial land and the impact of a concentration of subsidized projects along the U.S. 1 corridor. County officials sought to calm fears, saying that these projects would happen only occasionally.
"I have a concern like a lot of people who live in Elkridge, that we're going to get stuck with it," Grabowski said.
In the measure that the board approved, the minimum lot size for such projects was changed to 3 acres from 2 acres, and a 50-foot height limit was added for any housing proposed on a site adjacent to residentially zoned land. In addition, the board eliminated seven commercial and manufacturing zones where Housing Commission projects would be allowed.
The bill would impose height and setback requirements on commission projects for the first time. Currently, the Housing Commission can build without restrictions on commercial land where it is the sole owner.
Housing Director Stacy L. Spann said the change would enable the commission to join with the private investors needed to get state tax credits that will make subsidized apartment projects feasible.
He said at the board meeting that one project -- Ellicott Gardens -- would benefit from the change. He promised to hold community information meetings to describe any new proposed project long before it would be approved.
The vote was labeled "unfair" by John Lederer, a leader of a group of residents who last year successfully opposed a similar plan to build a four-story subsidized apartment house called Centennial Gardens on 2 1/2 acres along Frederick Road behind the Forest Motel in western Ellicott City.
"There should have been a delay and more public input," Lederer said after the meeting -- a position shared by Councilwoman Courtney Watson of Ellicott City, the League of Women Voters and the Howard County Citizens Association. They said people had no time to comment on revisions to the bill, and Watson maintained that a delay wouldn't hurt anything.
But board members rejected a delay, saying the public had a chance to testify at a hearing two weeks ago, and written testimony was allowed through Aug. 17. County Planning Director Marsha McLaughlin said her department met with interested residents on the issue.
Officials had hoped to bring the zoning change before the County Council in September, but the resolution was not written and signed by board members in time for Friday's deadline to prefile legislation, so it must wait for introduction until October.
McLaughlin and Spann want the zoning change to become law to help guarantee construction of Ellicott Gardens, a proposed four-story, limited-income apartment building of one- and two-bedroom units slated for construction on 4 acres owned by the Housing Commission on Route 108, north of Falls Run Road.
The Ellicott Gardens proposal is the result of a county law that allowed the developer of upscale Maple Lawn to fulfill an obligation to build some moderate-income, subsidized housing by giving land to the Housing Commission. The tract that the developer gave the commission on Route 108 is commercially zoned for offices. Spann said the state tax credits for the project must be used by year's end or they could be lost.
The board vote gratified affordable-housing advocates including Nancy Rhead, a member of the county Housing and Community Development Board, who attended the meeting.
"I was pleased that we're moving ahead with it," she said. "We have the land, and we have got some funding."
Andre De Verneil, who represented Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing at the board meeting, said the dispute has "turned into a tempest in a teapot."
"I think this bill is largely a housecleaning thing, but a sort of hysteria goes around when change takes place that sets off people's fears," De Verneil said.
The board also approved plans for a four-story, 43,591-square-foot office building on Stanford Boulevard, next to the exit ramp from eastbound Route 175 to southbound Snowden River Parkway, and another zoning change that would allow a pet day-care business in an industrially zoned area in the 9100 block of Red Branch Road off Route 108.