The new charter amendment governing Howard County's zoning process will have little effect on the day-to-day business of developers and opponents of development, now that the County Council has exempted most zoning changes from its scope.
Long term, however, the amendment could mean the end of comprehensive rezoning -- the very process it was meant to improve, says Darrel Drown, a Republican council member from the First District, who chairs the Zoning Board.
"Saying to land owners, 'We have the possibility of court cases and referendums and all those things,' is such a scary tactic," Mr. Drown said. A similar law in Montgomery County ended comprehensive rezoning there, he said, "and the county has suffered as a result."
Howard County's charter amendment, implemented by a bill unanimously passed by the County Council Monday night, gives voters and the county executive power to reject zoning policy and to overturn a comprehensive rezoning, which takes place about once every 10 years.
Voters could reject those countywide changes in land-use policy through a referendum, the county executive through a veto.
But the veto and referendum powers do not apply to piecemeal zoning decisions that relate to specific pieces of property, which limits the amendment's practical effect.
The reason: there will not be another comprehensive rezoning process for at least five years, county officials say. In the meantime, zoning changes will continue to be made by the Zoning Board at the request of individual property owners. Each of those changes applies only to that specific piece of property.
To win a piecemeal change, a property owner must convince the Zoning Board that the character of the neighborhood has changed since the last comprehensive rezoning of the county; that the Zoning Board made a mistake when it comprehensively rezoned the county; or that proposed zoning strictly adheres to certain pre-determined criteria.
The piecemeal process is a quasi-judicial one and is exempt from the county executive's veto or a referendum -- even though proponents of the charter amendment had fought to have it cover piecemeal zoning.
Mr. Drown believes all zoning from now on will be piecemeal because of the threat that comprehensive rezoning would be vetoed or overturned in a referendum.
And County Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. says the county is so close to being fully developed that the kind of comprehensive rezoning the county has done in the past may no longer be necessary.
If comprehensive rezoning does take place, any changes would be relatively minor, said Mr. Rutter. "I wouldn't imagine we're going to get major policy changes," he said.
What may happen instead, he said, is that a future executive and council may limit the scope of the comprehensive rezoning process and deal with places such as Ellicott City, Elkridge, and Lisbon individually.
Fellow Zoning Board member Mary Lorsung, D-4th, holds similar views. "I think it will be less 'comprehensive' than in the past," she said of the long-range process.
Ms. Lorsung said she favors "small area planning" but wants to do it in the context of countywide rezoning. "Other communities could benefit from the kinds of master plans we have now for Ellicott City and Elkridge," she said.
In refusing to subject piecemeal zoning decisions to a veto and a voter referendum, the council relied on the advice advice of county attorneys, who said such a move would violate due process rights.
But proponents of the charter amendment are expected to challenge that decision in court, perhaps as early as this spring.
The most likely target is piecemeal request slated to come before the zoning board April 12. The owners of a 50-acre parcel near Route 144 and Doughoregan Manor want to put up 100 apartments and a convenience store on the site.
Peter Oswald, who wrote the draft of the charter amendment, says he is not sure a court challenge will come immediately. There is no reason to go court if people near the proposed development are happy with it, Mr. Oswald said.
"We have to see if the people have an objection," he said. "Our basic concern is have more participation in making zoning decisions. The fact that people have some power [over the process] now will, hopefully, improve the dialogue."