Hearings begin on Rouse proposal Rezoning would permit Columbia-style village in North Laurel

October 23, 1997|By Del Quentin Wilber and Edward Lee | Del Quentin Wilber and Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

After months of anticipation, the Howard County Zoning Board began last night what is expected to be several months of hearings on the proposed rezoning of a 517-acre site in North Laurel to allow the Rouse Co. to build a Columbia-style village there.

The board heard opening statements from a Rouse attorney and the president of a local land-use committee, which opposes the zoning change for the largest development under consideration for Howard County.

Rouse would like the board to rezone the property from employment -- which allows retail, office buildings and commercial centers -- to mixed-use (residential neighborhoods and commercial centers). Many residents fear that such a change would strain public services and roads.

At the hearing, Rouse presented an amended petition saying it would cut 5 acres along Whiskey Bottom Road from the original 522 to build a loop road between Route 216 and Stephens Road.

Eliminating that acreage would mean a reduction of 15-single-family homes, making the total 1,395, while keeping the 71 moderate-income residences.

James Lano, the attorney representing Rouse, said the single-family homes and the retail and commercial centers would be built over several years and would not burden residents.

"We tend to forget that the surrounding neighborhoods have developed over a number of years," Lano said. "Yes, the 500-acre development will take a substantial time to complete."

He said the mixed-use proposal was more in line with the surrounding area, which is heavily residential. The county Planning Board reached that conclusion in April when it decided the properly had been incorrectly zoned.

The Planning Board's decision was the first step in a yearlong process that led to last night's meeting. Rouse may appeal the zoning change only if the original designation was a mistake or if the surrounding area has changed substantially.

In April, the Planning Board agreed that the designation was a mistake and recommended the zoning change.

Greg Fries, president of the Southern Howard Land Use Committee, which opposes the proposal, took the unusual step of making the group's opening statement, which usually is delivered by a lawyer.

Fries said residents are not anti-development but would rather see the employment zoning remain unchanged because more housing would burden schools and roads, and increase taxes.

He said that unless more roads were built in key areas, the development would cause traffic snarls because it would be bisected by Interstate 95 just south of Gorman Road and north of Route 216.

"You still can't get there from here," Fries said, referring to the difficulty of reaching the site. "There's simply a lack of infrastructure."

He also said there had been little change in the surrounding neighborhoods since 1993, when the original zoning was established.

Residents who oppose the zoning change say the addition of single-family homes would burden an already strained school system by adding 325 elementary, 152 middle and 188 high school students.

When the county school board approved its annual capital budget, it included construction of a $29 million high school in Fulton to address those concerns, which Alton Scavo, Rouse's senior vice president for community development, pointed out last night.

Residents fear that the mixed-use community wouldn't generate enough revenue to pay for educating the children of new residents -- and for other services the new residents would need -- and that only an increase in taxes could balance the books.

Last night's meeting was televised and will be rebroadcast today on Channel 15 at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Wednesday's meeting also will be televised.

There will be a briefing on the proposal at 7: 45 p.m. today at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in Columbia, sponsored by the African American Coalition of Howard County.

Also last night, Zoning Board member Dennis R. Schrader disclosed that he had sought the county Ethics Commission's ruling about a possible conflict of interest involving a Rouse vice president who sits on the board of Schrader's employer, the University of Maryland Medical System.

The Ethics Commission found no conflict.

Pub Date: 10/23/97

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