Howard County Council weighs special taxing district in Laurel

Howard County Council members worked at their session on Thursday to better understand how the creation of a special taxing district in Laurel could impact both residents and a planned development.

A bill being considered would establish the special taxing district as part of a tax incremental financing deal, or TIF, for a proposed 64-acre development near the Laurel Park racetrack and MARC station. The county must create the special taxing district in order to freeze any future tax gains from the development and direct that money to fund the effort.

Track owner Stronach Group is developing the project, which includes approximately 1,000 residential units, 127,000 square feet of retail space, 650,000 square feet of office space and two parking garages with 350 spaces each, according to the bill. If approved, construction for the project is expected to begin in 2018, with a slated completion year of 2025.

Establishment of the special taxing area would allow the county to issue bonds to developers to help finance public infrastructure improvements — such as storm drains, roads and sidewalks — that come with constructing new residential or commercial space.

The issue received some negative feedback from residents Monday at the council's public hearing. Some residents testified that the project would bring too many residential units and not enough resources and amenities to the area, and that upgrading the racetrack's MARC commuter train station from a flag stop to a limited-service stop would not offer benefits to residents, but would merely increase traffic.

Council members grilled Planning and Zoning director Val Lazdins and Deputy Director of Finance Rafiu Ighile, as well as representatives from the project's development team, on research conducted on the project and how the project would be impacted by a TIF, as well as what would happen if the county does not approve the special taxing.

Aaron Greenfield, an attorney for Laurel Park, said during the session that the project could move forward without the TIF, but that the design would need to be reoriented.

Greenfield said one affected aspect would be improvements to the MARC station platform and planned parking garages, neither of which would be built if the TIF is not approved, as those changes are specifically part of a proposed Transit Oriented Development District designation. The designation aims to encourage mixed-use office and residential development with access to nearby transportation, and is a part of the developer's TIF request.

Councilman Calvin Ball and Councilwoman Jen Terrasa asked Greenfield if the developer has made any effort to reach out to the community to drum up support for the project at Laurel Park, saying they haven't heard a lot of positive response. Ball said during the meeting that he has heard from no one in the community who supports the project.

"I haven't heard people say 'Oh, this [the MARC station] is a great idea, this is an amenity," Terrasa said.

Greenfield said the public's opposition to the project is based on a lack of clear understanding of the project and the benefits it could bring to the area.

Councilman Greg Fox said during the meeting that he was ready to vote on the matter, especially since approving the creation of a special taxing district did not automatically mean the approval of the project's TIF.

But others, such as Terrasa, were less ready to vote. Terrasa said at the end of the meeting that she wanted to speak more with the developer and ask further questions.

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