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Council looks at stiffer reviews for development near Howard's scenic roads

Contact ReporterHoward County Times

Tighter restrictions and reviews for developments planned along or near scenic roads in Howard County are being considered by the County Council.

Councilwoman Jen Terrasa is co-sponsoring legislation that would require more reviews and public meetings for developments that have more than 99 units planned near any of the more than five dozen roads that are designated as scenic in Howard County.

“It’s the basic problem of more traffic causing more safety concerns,” said Terrasa, a Democrat.

“I need for my community to be safe, and I want them to have an opportunity for input,” she said.

The proposed legislation, which was put on hold last month and is expected to be revived for additional debate this fall, is opposed by the Fulton-based Maryland Building Industry Association.

“The bill is aimed at stopping projects and making projects no longer viable,” said Josh Greenfeld, the vice president of government affairs for the trade association.

Questions also have been raised about whether projects in downtown Columbia, which is undergoing major redevelopment, would be affected since they are near Governor Warfield Parkway, a portion of which is a scenic road.

The legislation also would force developers to prove that entrances and exits to their properties could not be practically built on non-scenic roads and could also require developers to “pay their fair share” for required improvements, said Councilman Calvin Ball, the bill’s other co-sponsor.

Scenic roads are defined by the county as those with outstanding natural features or views, historic association or “frontage on preservation easements.” There are more than 60 scenic roads in Howard, according to the most recent county statistics from 2017.

“This is, look you’re building a 400-unit development and that causes safety problems on this scenic road or within a mile of a scenic road, and instead of leaving it for the county to figure out later, how to make our constituents safer, we’re saying the developer needs to pay their fair share of it,” Terrasa said.

Valdis Lazdins, the county’s planning and zoning department director, said the Department of Planning and Zoning hasn’t done an assessment to see which projects would be covered by the bill.

He questioned how scenic roads would be affected by downtown Columbia development, which aims to create an urban setting with multi-storied buildings and parking decks.

“It’s unclear how the Planning Board would look at those impacts," he said, adding that the bill might affect Wilde Lake Village Center, the Crescent and Columbia Lakefront projects.

Council chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, one of the council members who voted to table the proposal at a meeting last week, said the measure could affect a “significant area where we already have plenty of process.”

Sigaty said she has issues with the Planning Board having the ability to give an up-or-down vote on work that should be “left to the experts” — public works engineers — and that safety concerns brought up in public testimony are already addressed in the existing Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.

Sigaty, Councilman Greg Fox and the Maryland Building Industry Association also are concerned the proposal could be an attempt to halt development proposed on one particular property near Gorman Road.

The Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association wants to sell or develop 121 acres near Laurel where it has a plant producing milk products, such as cream and butter. The cooperative’s president, Matt Hoff, said at a July 23 public hearing that, amid challenging economic times for the dairy industry, the cooperative is seeking to sell or develop part of the property.

“Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative feels that this proposed legislation is a direct attempt to delay approvals on our property and could put our farming business in jeopardy,” Hoff’s written testimony read. "Please help us by rejecting this flawed legislation."

In response to those concerns, Ball said the legislation was "less about a particular property and more about a transparent process to empower voters against overdevelopment” and give them a voice in the process, noting that there are a “large number of units” coming from that development. Ball, a Democrat, is challenging incumbent County Executive Allan Kittleman in November’s election.

Terrasa and Ball said they plan to put the proposal back on the table for debate in September.

Sigaty, a Democrat, and Fox, a Republican, said they have yet to determine how they would vote on the legislation. Democratic Councilman Jon Weinstein did not have any comment on the bill.

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