A plan to give Columbia a more urban appearance by building 500 town house or apartment units in Town Center has been substantially pared back by county officials, who worried that noise from nearby Merriweather Post Pavilion would disrupt future tenants.
The decision weakened a plan that some believed might revitalize Columbia's quiet downtown area.
But the move also baffled some community leaders, who have long pushed for more affordable housing in the affluent community.
Others were perplexed because noise had not surfaced as an issue during hearings on the plan.
The zoning board, which is also the County Council, rejected 12 of the 20 acres of apartments or town houses requested by the Rouse Co. by a 4-1 margin. The decision was released Thursday.
Councilman C. Vernon Gray was the lone dissenter. About 300 apartments could have been built on the rejected land. Deleting the housing will make it more difficult now to meet the county's goals for increasing affordable housing, Mr. Gray said.
"We're going to be really in trouble finding lower- and moderate-income housing," the 3rd District Democrat said. Noise from Merriweather Post was not a compelling reason to deny the request, he wrote in his dissenting opinion.
Even the county's planning and zoning director, Joseph Rutter, said noise concerns could be addressed during development. County regulations do not allow homes to be built within a 65-decibel area that is determined through a noise study, he said. Neither his staff's report nor the planning board had found fault with apartments at the Rouse location.
"If it's a problem there, it's probably a problem anywhere in Town Center," Mr. Rutter said.
The 300 units would have been built between Merriweather Post Pavilion and Broken Land Parkway, the new gateway into Columbia set to open this fall.
Alton Scavo, a vice president at Rouse, said the decision was confusing because noise from Merriweather Post had not been discussed during earlier hearings and board members had not questioned him about it.
He said Rouse executives may ask the zoning board to reconsider its decision.
"Philosophically, I'm disappointed that it didn't occur because I think it was a chance to enhance . . . the life and vitality of downtown by having more people there," Mr. Scavo said.
County Council Chairman Paul R. Farragut, whose district includes Town Center, said putting homes next to the pavilion was poor planning.
"I think common sense would tell you that if you put anything close to the pavilion, it would create an undesirable living environment based on the noise that's going to be generated 25 percent of the year," the Democrat said.
Mr. Farragut cited noise complaints from the neighboring apartment complex of South Gate Crossing, where noise was measured at the 65-decibel limit.
Mr. Farragut also noted testimony from Jim Blimmel, a representative of the neighboring Sebring Community. Mr. Blimmel, according to the board's written decision, was concerned about noise from Merriweather Post and its impact on future residents.
But Mr. Blimmel said yesterday the board had misconstrued his comments.
"We didn't necessarily oppose the apartments," he said.