Final votes on the two bills that will map out Columbia's future likely won't come until the Howard County Council's Feb. 1. legislative session. And that will be after a series of discussions, amendments and more public hearings, council members said.
"I actually think it is going to take until February," said council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat whose district includes the central area proposed for a huge redevelopment over the next three decades. By law, the council has 95 days from a bill's introduction to act on it or see legislation die. The two Columbia measures were introduced Nov. 2.
Sigaty and other members said that although they've heard from more than 100 speakers in a multi-session hearing that began last Saturday and stretched through this past week, the council will need time to discuss changes, draw up amendments and let the public see them.
The first work session is scheduled for Monday, to be followed by others. In addition, the distractions of the holidays, including a four-day unpaid furlough shutting down county government down between Christmas and New Year's, will likely dictate delays.
Sigaty, whose term as chairwoman expires next month, said she's willing to stay in the time-consuming job for another year, if other members want her to. With the Columbia issue, another difficult, revenue-starved county budget coming in April and the election campaigns to follow, most other members are not eager to take on the chairmanship.
"Whoever draws the short stick this year," will be chair, Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson joked.
The council has rejected calls from critics of General Growth Properties, Columbia's master developer who proposed the zoning changes, to vote only on a General Plan amendment and return the actual zoning language to the Planning Board for more study. After five years of discussion and 13 months considering the GGP plan, the time for action has come, they've said.
That doesn't mean final decisions on changes will come easily or quickly, however, members said.
"My guess is, we'll need at least five work sessions," Watson said, to talk about all the issues. Those range from affordable housing to how to enforce aspects of the plan if GGP is unable to finance the ambitious plan to add up to 5,500 new housing units, 4.3 million square feet of office space and 1.25 million square feet of retail, hotels, cultural amenities, environmental improvements and parking garages.
"I think it is going to be challenging, but worthwhile," said east Columbia Democrat Calvin Ball.
Jen Terrasa, a Democrat who represents the southeastern county, including King's Contrivance and Owen Brown in Columbia, agreed that "there's no way we're going to do it in a month."
A lawyer, Terrasa is focused on finding ways to ensure that the amenities in the plan are delivered, whether GGP endures as the developer or not.
"I heard anxiety about enforceability," she said, adding that she intends to have safeguards that "run with the land, and not with the landowner."
Still, changes may not be too complex, since county lawyers have been examining the issues for months already. "I don't think that piece is going to take so much hashing out." Other issues, such as density and building heights, also need attention, she said.
"I think it's going to take a lot of time."
Greg Fox, a Republican who represents the western county and Fulton, said "all sides have been bringing up good points" that will take time to explore and allow more public comment on before any votes.
Other players in the process have divergent views on the likely timing.
David Yungmann, a key organizer of those supporting GGP's vision and pushing for prompt action, said he is fine with a Feb. 1 vote.
"I think it's fine with me," he said. "As long as it's moving forward, I'm happy," said lawyer Michael W. Davis, who has also opposed any return of the zoning bill to the planning board.
"I'm ready to go. I think it's been five years," said Lin Eagan, a third advocate for the plan.
Others have urged caution and more study and discussion.
"I think the council is lacking sufficient evidence on which to make an informed decision," said Joel Yesley, who belongs to a group called the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown. He wants to see better transportation and economic impact studies done.
Alan Klein, a spokesman for the coalition group, agreed.
"There's nothing I've seen or heard that makes us more inclined to a shorter timeline," Klein said. "We just don't see how they can make a full and reasonable accounting of all the issues in that time frame."
He and other speakers urged the council to reject the zoning bill until a General Plan guide plan is adopted.
E. Alexander Adams, an attorney critical of the GGP plan, told the council at the hearing that the county should have written the bills, not the developer.