Howard County Council member seeks to tighten zoning rule, expand preservation oversight

Howard County Councilwoman Liz Walsh is proposing a pair of legislative measures — one aimed at closing what she calls a “loophole” in the protection of wetland areas and the other potentially expanding oversight duties of the county’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Howard County currently prohibits developers from paving, grading or removing trees in areas including wetland buffers, steep slopes or near streams, unless it is deemed a necessary disturbance to build “roads, driveways, utilities, trails, pathways or stormwater management facilities” needed for “reasonable development” of the property.

The provision requires the least damaging design for such exceptions, and the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning can approve or reject such requests.

Walsh, who won election in November, filed a bill last month that would strike the provision from the county code. A Democrat who represents Elkridge, Hanover and portions of Ellicott City, she said the clause conflicts with land-use requirements that are intended to preserve green space. She also believes the exception is largely unknown to the “community at large.”

“People don’t know this is in play until it's on the front page of a development plan,” she said.

Valdis Lazdins, director of the Department of Planning and zoning, said in an email that the department had been advised of Walsh’s bill, but had not had an opportunity to “review and discuss it with council in advance of its filing.” Lazdins said the existing provision can be used to allow for projects including “public utility, stream restoration and stormwater management facilities.”

Walsh noted two examples from last year in which the department approved waivers for projects in Elkridge and old Ellicott City. In Elkridge, the department allowed a developer to grade and clear within 75 feet of a stream buffer for a “stormwater management outfall pipe and rip rap channel.” In historic Ellicott City, the department allowed the widening of Frederick Road and a culvert extension as a necessary disturbance.

Walsh’s second bill would alter the list of projects that would face review by the Historic Preservation Commission. Currently the commission, a panel of seven residents, can support or oppose requests for substantial changes to the exterior of historical structures and properties within historic districts in the county.

The commission, however, does not consider site developments, construction or alteration of public streets and sidewalks, installation of forest conservation plantings, clearing of trees on approved subdivisions, or grading or forest conservation plans.

Walsh’s proposal would strike those exemptions — effectively requiring applications for such projects to be reviewed by the commission.

A representative of the Historic Preservation Commission declined to comment on the proposal.

Walsh said she filed the preservation bill in advance of a hearing for a proposed subdivision in Lawyer’s Hill. The preservation commission can already make recommendations on aspects the Lawyer’s Hill plan, and will host a public meeting on the proposal at 7 p.m. Jan. 17, also at the George Howard Building.

Meanwhile, the public can comment on Walsh’s bills at a County Council session scheduled for 7 p.m. Jan. 22 in George Howard Building, 3430 Court House Drive, Ellicott City.

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