Open-parcels measure at issue before council

The Baltimore Sun

Howard County Council members hope to resolve their differences today on several bills and resolutions set for a July 7 vote, including one intended to help preserve small, open lots in older, developed neighborhoods.

The bill, introduced by council chairman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, would allow the owners of developable lots to sell the building rights, leaving the lots vacant and preventing large new homes from popping up amid staid, more traditional homes.

Builders who buy these rights would get a 10 percent density increase, allowing more new homes to rise on parcels of more than 15 acres in certain zones. The county planning board approved it unanimously.

But some council members and residents have questions about where those new homes would end up, and whether the public should have an opportunity to influence the process.

At the public hearing the council held Monday night, Watson said the bill "is about neighborhood preservation." But Joan Lancos, a former county planning board member and chairman, opposed the measure.

"It's a mistake. It moves the problem from one place to another," she said. "Residents have no say. It's a private deal."

Lancos and others are worried that Riverdale, a 264-home mixed-use project on 30 acres slated to be built on property in the northeast corner of the intersection of Route 32 and Cedar Lane that she and others oppose could end up with additional housing.

Several residents of Columbia asked that the bill be tabled, despite Watson's announcement at the hearing that she plans to withdraw a separate resolution asking county officials to consider Columbia as a possible destination for building rights despite its unique zoning.

Columbia's New Town zoning is due for a prolonged county review and revision later this year, after plans for central Columbia's redevelopment are submitted by General Growth Properties.

Still, council member Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, pointed out that various parcels of land throughout Columbia are not legally part of the town, and so could accept transferred building rights, too.

"If we knew where the receiving parcels were, we could comment on this," she said.

Later, county planning director Marsha McLaughlin said she'd try to produce a map for council members for today's 12:30 p.m. session.

Watson got support from the Greater Elkridge Community Association, the Howard County Citizens Association, the League of Women Voters, and the county Chamber of Commerce. Greg Lowe, the chamber spokesman, noted that the bill would create an option for landowners, not require them to sell their rights.

"We're trying to preserve the integrity of existing, established neighborhoods," Watson said. Her bill could be one more tool to do that, she said.

But Angie Boyter of Ellicott City, another supporter of the concept, also expressed some worries.

"I do not want to solve my problem to create one in another area," she said.

Diane Butler, representing the St. John's Lane Community Association, said infill - building new homes on small lots - has created flooding and drainage problems and has cost her area large mature trees.

"Infill is destroying our neighborhood," she said. "We have had developers use every loophole in the law against us."

Developers of new projects can plan for a few extra units and fit them in from the start.

Michael Laureno of Ellicott City said his surplus 3.3-acre lot is a prime example of what the bill would do.

"We consider that our bank account - our daughter's college education," he said.

The bill would allow him to sell the building rights rather than develop the property for three new homes.

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