Mini-Columbia back to drawing board Howard County: More details needed in Rouse plan to develop North Laurel site.

March 17, 1997

THE ROUSE CO. is not accustomed to being told to go back to the drawing board. So executives of the Columbia-based real estate firm had to be caught off guard when the planning board in its own home county knocked its proposal to build a mini-Columbia in North Laurel.

The panel was correct, however, in asking Rouse to provide more information before it decides whether to recommend the project to the zoning board. Members of the panel clearly were not comfortable with the sketchy outline that one resident, a college geography instructor, testified "would have gotten a 'C' " if submitted by one of his students.

The planning board had already taken a giant step in favor of the project when it voted to recommend that the proposed 522-acre site be rezoned as a mixed-use center. It would be the largest parcel to receive that designation since so-called "MXD" zoning became part of the vocabulary in Howard County's 1990 General Plan. The previous zoning was for employment.

No doubt, the planning board was influenced by angry North Laurel residents, who brought written and footnoted testimony to oppose the creation of a mini-Columbia. But it was also obvious that panel members were under-whelmed by the plan itself. As Chairman Theodore Mariani remarked: "It doesn't have enough punch. It doesn't have enough clarity. It doesn't have enough specificity."

There were even suggestions that Rouse, that pioneering developer of contemporary communities, borrow ideas from other "neo-traditional" projects. Board member Joan Lancos, referring to another new development in the county, uttered the phrase "Terra Maria." That must have been blasphemous to the ears of Alton Scavo, a Rouse executive -- sort of like telling Cal Ripken Jr. to watch this new guy who can really play shortstop.

Unfortunately, planning members were as unspecific in their criticisms as Rouse was in its plans: They weren't sure what they were looking for, but would know it when they see it. It seemed appropriate, though, to put up a speed bump for a project they seem to favor but have trouble envisioning. They may be asking Rouse to go beyond what the rules require, but in deciding the fate of the county's first big mixed-use project, it would be foolish to rush.

Pub Date: 3/17/97

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