"Council allows more development in rural west," Howard County Sun, July 22, [by Erik Nelson], misquoted me as saying that Howard Countians for Responsible Growth favors a one house per 5 acres gross density across western Howard County. Actually, HCFRG favors retention of the current 3-acre minimum zoning, but for a cluster development-type zoning would find one house per 5 acres net acceptable.
This may seem like a minor detail, but it is important in determining how many homes finally get built in the western county. In any event, the County Council, sitting as the Zoning Board, voted for an even higher density, one house per 4.25 acres gross. Though the article portrayed this as a minor difference, it is actually a significant up-zoning of the west that bears a closer look.
Three-acre minimum zoning yields a density of about one house every 5 acres of land on lots that are at least 3 acres in size. The 1990 General Plan proposed retaining this density but clustering houses together on smaller lots, some smaller than an acre. The stated objective was to preserve large parcels of farmland and open space while being fair to landowners and allowing development to continue without a loss of density and land value.
But those of us who fought clustering were reasonably certain that it would be used to stage growth and development, not save land. The recent Zoning Board action shows that to be largely the case; clustering is being used to up-zone the west, not preserve it.
The numbers tell the story. According the Department of Planning and Zoning, the size of the west is about 96,000 acres, with about 49,500 acres available to development. Under 3-acre minimum zoning (one house per 5 acres actual yield), this would have potentially produced about 9,900 maximum additional households. (49,000 divided by 5).
The 1990 General Plan called for clustering at a density of one house every 5 acres net, meaning that steep slopes, flood plains and stream valleys could not be included in the density calculation. Again, this was supposed to neither appreciably bTC increase or decrease the ultimate number of homes in the west. But the Zoning Board voted to go with one house every 4.25 acres on the gross amount of land, a double whammy, since the base goes up from five to 4.25, and gross means that unbuildable acreage is included in the density calculation, further increasing the density yield.
The bottom line is that the Zoning Board vote could result in 11,647 potential new homes, an up-zoning of 1,747 extra homes. By way of comparison, a typical Columbia village numbers about 2,000 households. It is hard to accept that adding the rough housing equivalent of a Columbia village to the west is some kind of compromise, unless the context is to say that the interests of the citizens and taxpayers of this county have been compromised by this action.
But the increased density isn't the only problem. It also matters ,, where this extra density is to go.
Rather than stick with the simplicity and predictability of a single zoning category for the west, the Zoning Board voted to split the west into two zones (rural conservation and rural residential) and include a transfer of development rights from the "conservation" area to the "residential" one.
The rural residential strip runs just about right down the middle of the west, and this area is where most of the new density is intended to be concentrated. Supposedly most of the development in the west is already in this region, and the logic is evidently that it is OK to add more lots. But a simple ride in a car would show that immense spreads of open productive farmland lie in this area, and a fair amount of it is in our county's preservation program.
There are still opportunities for citizens to mitigate the damage this up-zoning is likely to cause. For example, easement language must be written to govern the "preservation parcels" to be left by clustering, and regulations and procedures must be created for shared septic field systems. Residents can have at least some impact on how well those items turn out.
Despite the seemingly pervasive influence of developer interests and dollars on local politics, citizens can still have an impact if enough care to. It is important for citizens to remain involved in the future of the west (and of all our county), there is still much to be decided.
(John Taylor is president of Howard Countians for Responsible Growth.)