In its final vote to comprehensively rezone the eastern part of Howard County, the county Zoning Board has crafted a fragile compromise between the forces of development and slow growth.
It has also taken a sizable gamble: that by throwing a road block before the county's preeminent developer, the Rouse Co., the county will still achieve the goals in its 1990 General Plan.
Rouse Co. Vice President Alton J. Scavo was justifiably shocked by the decision by the board, whose members also sit on the County Council. The board denied a zoning change that would have allowed Rouse to develop homes, office and retail uses on much of nearly 1,100 acres that straddle Interstate 95 in North Laurel. The success of Columbia makes Rouse the standard-bearer for quality, high-density communities that offer a variety of housing. The company had a right to expect better treatment.
The county's denial raises the question of whether Rouse will sell the property or wait seven years to request a change under the next general rezoning. Under existing zoning, the parcel could become a corporate office park. Given the soft demand for corporate facilities, however, the likelihood that Rouse officials will dump the potentially lucrative property in a fire sale is next to nil.
The greater gamble lies in whether the zoning board has squandered a chance to meet guidelines set forth in the General Plan, which stresses carefully planned mixed-use developments over the traditionally haphazard and costly consequences of suburban sprawl.
What the Rouse plan for North Laurel offered was an opportunity to reach the county's annual cap on residential development with a mixed-use community of up to 3,000 housing units. Without Rouse, the cap will be met in other ways, including the continued development of luxury homes on large parcels in rural, western Howard. Such developments strain the county's infrastructure without generating the tax revenues that could come from mixed-use developments.
Ironically, the zoning board has approved mixed-use zoning on 820 acres in Fulton, where residents complained vociferously that they didn't want dense development.
The board's vote against Rouse may be interpreted as a message that the county intends to go slow on mixed-use, but what it says about Howard's commitment to its 10-year master plan for land use is cloudy at best.