This time, panel's vote will be public Zoning board drew fire for secret mixed-use tally

March 06, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Almost two months after the Howard County Zoning Board approved streamlining hearings for a proposed North Laurel mixed-use community, the board agreed yesterday to take another vote on the matter -- this time in public.

But there is no indication that the new vote will do anything more than clear up an apparent technical violation of Zoning Board rules.

The original vote -- which approved having one Planning Board hearing on the rezoning of more than 500 acres off Gorman Road as well as the Rouse Co.'s plans for a mixed-use development on the site -- had drawn fire from citizens' groups and a letter from the state attorney general's office asking why the decision was made in secret.

"I was sure that we took it in public," County Councilman Darrel E. Drown, who chairs the Zoning Board, said of the vote. "But we don't have it in our records.

"So we thought that we would retake the vote so that it's public and everybody knows how everybody voted," he said, adding that he saw no reason why the outcome would be any different.

Drown faxed a letter to Kathryn Mann, president of the Howard County Citizens Association -- a group that had sought two separate hearings on the rezoning and the development plans -- stating that Zoning Board records could not verify that a vote was taken Jan. 8 to hear both matters in a single hearing.

The Zoning Board, which comprises all members of the County Council, will take its public vote on the matter Monday during the County Council's monthly meeting.

The Rouse mixed-use project -- about half the size of a Columbia village -- calls for 1,425 single-family and multifamily homes, business and office space and a recreation area on 523.7 acres. The development would sit south of Gorman Road and north of Route 216, straddling Interstate 95. Construction could begin in 1999.

Mann, of the citizens' association, said she is pleased by the Zoning Board's decision but is not optimistic about the vote.

"This doesn't appear to be a hearing," Mann said. "I don't think that they're going to be taking any testimony. It looks like they'll just come in and vote."

Kimberly Smith Ward, an assistant attorney general who sent the letter last month, said the move is a symbolic victory for the state's open-meetings law.

"It's always a good thing when you do something in public view to allow the public access to state and county business," Ward said.

Alton Scavo, Rouse senior vice president, said he did not consider the new vote a setback to his company's plan.

"I'm assuming that it's a matter of clarification for the record," he said. "If they did [change their minds], I would think that they would have reopened it to debate."

Rouse's plans are scheduled for a hearing before the county Planning Board on March 12. The project then will have to go back to the Zoning Board for final approval.

Opponents of having the two matters -- the rezoning and the development plans -- heard in one hearing argue that the rezoning question should be resolved before any consideration of a plan for the site. Those supporting the streamlined hearing NTC process argue that the two matters are so intertwined that it would confuse the issue to separate them.

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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