The man with the plan explains it

December 15, 1992|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

Howard County's top planner will lay out the plan behind the plan during tonight's Zoning Board hearing.

"I don't believe that keeping the status quo in zoning is an option," said Joseph W. Rutter, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, who has heard his comprehensive rezoning plan for the eastern portion of Howard maligned repeatedly in Planning Board hearings, community meetings and in the press.

Not to change would leave the county chasing declining services with increasing tax dollars and watching existing jobs go to other counties, he said in an interview yesterday.

Mr. Rutter will make his case at the hearing scheduled for 8 p.m. in the George Howard county office building in Ellicott City. A second night for testimony on proposed zoning regulation changes will begin at 8 p.m. tomorrow. Two nights of testimony on changes to the zoning map are scheduled for 8 p.m., Jan. 6 and 11.

Until now, planners explained the proposed rezoning from a planner's perspective. Changes were meant to "maximize potential" of a given piece of land.

Such technical explanations served to fuel opponents' charges that changes, based largely upon the county's 1990 General Plan for growth, are meant to satisfy developers and planned with little consideration for ordinary citizens.

Much of the opposition has been organized to fight creation of an 820-acre mixed-use area in Fulton and rezoning to allow warehouse-sized stores at U.S. 29 and Route 103 in Ellicott City.

Mr. Rutter said that tonight he will flesh out the philosophy behind proposed changes, and explain the consequences of doing nothing.

One key element that opponents sometimes fail to understand is that most residential development costs the county more than it brings in in taxes and other revenues, Mr. Rutter said.

"In order to maintain the quality of services that we have, at the relatively reasonable tax rate that we have, this is an important component," he said.

Another consideration comes from state and federal mandates. To keep haphazard development from harming the environment, growth has to be accommodated under strict parameters, Mr. Rutter said.

"You can trash the General Plan if you want, but you've got to get the state and you've got to get the federal government to change the way they're doing business," Mr. Rutter said.

On the state level, Maryland's growth management act requires jurisdictions to direct growth to where the infrastructure, such as roads and sewers, can best accommodate it without harming the environment. One of the "visions" handed down by the state involves clustering development -- a big part of the county's comprehensive rezoning -- to keep it away from stream corridors and keep tree-cutting to a minimum.

The county is ahead of other jurisdictions in adhering to the state's planning directives by incorporating them in its General Plan, Mr. Rutter said. But if Howard and other counties balk, the legislature could pass a stronger law to take planning authority away from county government.

Most damaging to business are federal mandates on Baltimore-area air pollution, Mr. Rutter said. The federal Clean Air Act requires businesses to develop plans to reduce air pollution by creating car pools, busing or providing incentives to use mass transit.

Mixed-use centers, with apartments, town houses and other, more affordable housing for employees in the county will make that much easier for employers to cope with, Mr. Rutter said. Currently, many employees on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder are forced to find housing outside of the county, where they can afford it.

"Not just new businesses, but existing major employers are going to have to look long and hard about staying in the county," he said.

And "affordable" may be somewhat of a misnomer, he added.

"We're not talking about low-income housing; we're talking about college graduates that are starting out."

Another primary force behind comprehensive rezoning is the belief that growth will happen no matter what, and it is better to plan for it well than let it happen haphazardly.

This is especially true of the mixed-use centers, said Marsha McLaughlin, Mr. Rutter's deputy director. "Just leaving them doesn't mean they won't be developed; they'll just develop piecemeal," she said.

Part of the reason for that, Mr. Rutter said, is that the piecemeal rezoning process is judicial, not legislative like comprehensive rezoning. A landowner can win a piecemeal rezoning if he can prove there has been a change in the character of the neighborhood or mistake in existing zoning. Comprehensive zoning changes are policy decisions made by County Council members, sitting as the Zoning Board.

Mixed-used zoning will give the landowner potential and flexibility, but still give county officials tight control over how the property is developed, Mr. Rutter said.

It also requires a developer to get preliminary plans approved by the Zoning Board, with more specific plans approved by the Planning Board.

The zoning category would also provide a degree of environmental protection because of its 30 percent open space requirement, she said.

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