A boisterous, sometimes rowdy crowd of more than 300 people lambasted the Rural Land Use Study Commission last week for suggesting alternatives to the one-house-per-three-acre zoning in western Howard County.
The county's 1990 General Plan requires houses to be clustered in some rural areas. The seven-member ad-hoc commission was appointedin January to suggest ways clustering could occur.
The commission shared possible scenarios at last Wednesday's meeting at Glenelg High School. But most in attendance were in no mood tohear them.
For three days before the meeting, members of a citizens' lobby called Howard Countians for Responsible Growth had distributed anti-cluster fliers to 1,800 western county households.
The fliers suggested that septic fields needed by villages and clustered housing developments could contaminate ground water.
They also said land saved by clustering would be only temporarily preserved. What clustering really means, the fliers said, is "Build more now, and buildmore later."
People arriving for the meeting were met outside by volunteers with literature calling for a General Plan amendment to maintain three-acre lots only.
"How do you feel about treated sewagefrom village development being sprayed across land near your community," the fliers screamed in large italic type.
Commission ChairmanTed Mariani, of Daisy, planned to begin the hearing with a 45-minutepresentation of the commission's findings before opening the meetingto questions and comments. But as he started to speak, a woman beganshouting from the audience, accusing the commission of being puppetsof developers.
"We don't need to see this!" she shouted as Mariani began a slide presentation. "Get on with it. Let the people speak."
He would have been in trouble even with a sympathetic audience. The slide projector was too close to the screen, and the detail on many of the slides was too small to be seen by most in attendance. That,combined with the woman's shouting, made paying attention virtually impossible. Others began joining in the catcalling.
Mariani persevered. He listed the commission's 13 goals and guidelines -- things like preserving landowner equity, protecting ground water, enhancing the right to farm and preserving the rural character of the area -- andgave examples of the types of clusters, hamlets and villages explored by the commission.
Tom Horvath of West Friendship vilified the commission, accusing members of "conflicts of interest" and having deviously put the "bitter pill" of clustering "in a nice package for people to swallow."
When Mariani sought to clarify an issue or correct what he said was an erroneous impression, he was hooted down. Sometimes politely, often abrasively, people told Mariani they didn't believe him or the commission.
Jim Swab of Ellicott City was applaudedwhen he told the commission, "I feel a basic distrust of government.. . . I believe (clustering) is a way to future development," not a means of preserving open space as the commission contends.
With few exceptions, most of the 51 people who signed up to speak echoed Swab's sentiments. They said they favored three-acre zoning because nothing can be built between them and their neighbors' lots. They indicated they didn't believe, as the commission contends, that 70 percent of land in a clustered development can and would be preserved perpetually as open space.
John W. Taylor of Highland, president of the citizens' growth lobby, told the audience he had been told privately bya member of the commission that in 50 years, covenants preserving open space could be altered. "Covenants and zoning laws can be changed," Taylor said afterward. "Zoning realities -- (houses built on three-acre lots) -- can't."
Land preservationist Ridgely Jones of Sykesville was one of the few to disagree. Jones said that while three-acrezoning "has a great many advantages . . . it eats up farmland prettyfast and gives developers the best shot at the land." If the commission has a better idea, he would be "glad to hear about it," Jones said.
After the hearing, Mariani said he believes his commission has "an obligation" to try to conduct another hearing. To do so would require a vote of the commission. That also would mean extending the deadline for the commission's report to the council, which is scheduled to receive it at the end of this month.
Mariani, who sat through six years of zoning hearings in the District of Columbia, said Wednesday's hearing here was the most acrimonious he had ever seen. In the past, "there was always a certain amount of respect for the public forum," Mariani said. Wednesday night, "it was very disturbing to see the whole process of open exchange, the democratic process, cast aside"by people who had "misconceptions which they brought with them."
Taylor said he also hopes the commission will conduct multiple hearings at multiple locations. "It was a very emotional time," Taylor saidof Wednesday's hearing.