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Council readies busy agenda

The Baltimore Sun

From measures to limit the height of buildings to a resolution to study the feasibility of vying for a proposed state horse park, the Howard County Council has a busy agenda this month.

So much legislation was introduced at this week's council meeting that members scheduled the monthly public hearing on the proposals to begin an hour early, at 6:30 p.m., on Sept. 17 and are prepared to continue the testimony the next afternoon if necessary. Votes are scheduled Oct. 1.

The long list of measures results partly from the council's annual August recess, but Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, said the council is intent on giving members of the public time to have their say.

"We've done an exercise in planning and forethought that will facilitate an open process," he said.

West Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty's two bills seeking to prevent construction of any tall buildings - including the 23-story Plaza Residences now under construction on the Columbia Town Center lakefront - have drawn the most interest.

One of Sigaty's bills would prohibit structures more than 150 feet high until a Columbia downtown master plan is adopted by the council next year. A second measure seeks to impose the same height limit on the tower being constructed by applying it to any building facing a court or administrative review.

The tower's developer, WCI Communities, has three building permits for the project, so it is unclear whether Sigaty's bills, even if approved, would be able to stop or limit the project since they would not take effect until Dec. 4.

"I don't know, but that's not going to keep me from moving forward with it," said Sigaty before Tuesday night's council meeting.Both measures were given negative recommendations by the county Planning Board, but Sigaty introduced them anyway.

Meanwhile, the developers appear to be ignoring her efforts.

"We're just going to keep rolling along in the normal logic of construction," said William Rowe, a WCI vice president. He refused to speculate on whether the work would be far enough along by December to vest the project, legally insulating it from any new laws.

Lloyd Knowles, a former county councilman and one of four county residents trying to block the tower in court, said his group will keep the case alive.

He speculated that the site work being done on the tower is a public relations gambit intended to convince the public that opposition is useless.

"I don't think they have any intention of building until everything is cleared up," Knowles said. "Part of this is trying to win the hearts and minds of the public."

If that weren't enough controversy for one month, County Executive Ken Ulman and Councilwoman Jennifer Terrasa introduced a bill to require thorough environmental testing of any golf course proposed for development. The bill was prompted by the revelation that heavy concentrations of arsenic were found two years ago near a utility shed at Turf Valley Conference Center and Resort, where the Mangione family is trying to develop more than 1,300 new homes.

The family agreed last week to enter a state environmental cleanup program to reassure the public that the land under its golf courses is safe, although Louis Mangione, vice president of Mangione Family Enterprises, has insisted the firm always intended to do more testing as part of the required development process. Mangione said this week he opposes the bill as "unneccesary and redundant" since he already agreed to enter the state program.

Another environmental bill would complete Ulman's "green" legislative package approved in July, by creating a list of official green neighborhood standards - features homebuilders can use to gain quicker approval of residential projects.

The proposition of a huge Maryland Stadium Authority horse park and museum is expected to draw even more speakers to the council's public hearing.

Greg Fox, a western county Republican, and Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, are co-sponsoring a resolution that would create a citizens committee to study the idea of a horse park and decide whether to recommend that the county try for the state project.

Fox said he has no specific location in mind for the center, which might need between 500 and 1,000 acres and could cost up to $114.2 million, but he mentioned the University of Maryland Central Farm, about 900 acres located on Folly Quarter Road, as a possibility. Another site might be found somewhere along Interstate 70, he said.

Fox said he is not yet arguing that Howard County should join the competition for the project.

"It's very preliminary. It's something we don't want to be left out of," he said. Nor is he clear on how much money county government would have to spend for such a project.

"The one thing I know we should be doing is we should be looking at it," Fox said. He expects little opposition to his resolution.

Ball said he has some serious reservations, however.

"Traffic and infrastructure, and what's the state's level of interest?" the council chairman wanted to know.

J. Robert Burk, executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, said his agency is determined to go ahead with the project somewhere in the state. The Maryland Stadium Authority did a feasibility study for the board, and would likely oversee the project.

"We're committed to the horse park project and intend to see it through to completion," Burk said. "All options are open."

Anne Arundel County was slated to get the horse park at the former Naval Academy dairy farm in Gambrills, but newly elected County Executive John R. Leopold nixed it because of opposition from local residents. Other counties in contention include Carroll, Cecil, Frederick, Harford and Wicomico, Burk said.

The park would likely be modeled on the 1,200-acre Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, visited by nearly 1 million visitors annually. That facility also has a museum and campground.


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