A touch of city living -- the urban mix of homes and shops -- may be coming to suburban Howard County.
Howard planners are drafting new "mixed-use" zoning that would allow homes in close proximity to office and commercial buildings, in developments as small as 25 acres. Large-scale projects could even mix houses and manufacturing facilities.
Jennifer Huff, a county planner, said mixed-use zones exist in Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George's counties and in the city of Gaithersburg, but "there is nothing comparable to what we are considering in Howard County.
"The ordinance will allow a true mix of uses so that there could be apartments over stores and greater flexibility for a developer to come up with their own plan that fits with the surroundings," she said.
The planners are working with a committee of citizens, private land-use planners and one developer representative, Alton Scavo, a Rouse Co. vice president, in devising the zoning.
Mr. Scavo offered Cross Keys, a Rouse project in Baltimore, as an example of successful mixed-use planning.
A large-scale, mixed-use center can "bring a little more diversity to a project, and the uses can be very compatible and reinforcing," Mr. Scavo said.
"Apartments and town houses can be located next to a village center with offices, gas stations, fast-food establishments, supermarkets, and cheese and wine shops, and running through the development would be an open space system," he said.
Mr. Scavo said the committee is recommending that the county Planning Board review the plans for the mixed-use centers just as it does now for development in Columbia.
"The zone would permit greater flexibility for development, but there would be more review requirements," Mr. Scavo said.
The Rouse Co. has a real interest in the proposed zoning ordinance because two of its properties would qualify as mixed-use sites -- the Gateway-General Electric site off Route 175 and the Key property at Interstate 95 and Route 216.
Rouse also intends to seek changes to Columbia's plan to add housing downtown.
Mr. Scavo said he did not consider his role in helping draft the zoning ordinances a conflict of interest, citing Rouse's "experience with mixed-use projects in the region and nationally."
"There are considerably more community representatives on the committee. I am the only developer there," he said.
"It is a clear example of the openness of the new administration" of Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker.
The concept of mixed-use districts was first mentioned in the county's 1990 General Plan as one way to generate more opportunities for affordable housing, better traffic flow on the county's road network and more chances for people to live near where they work.
Planners envision two types of district -- 25 to 50 acres, and over 50 acres.
County Planning Director Joe Rutter said smaller districts would be limited to the eastern end of the county, where public water and sewer and adequate roads exist.
As Mr. Rutter envisions it, a small-scale mixed-use center would be chiefly residential, with some local businesses such as a day-care center, barber shop, drug store and bank, but no manufacturing or warehouses.