Zoning rule changes are considered Planned-employment center category would allow more uses

May affect Rouse project

Some fear developers could intimidate land-use opponents

November 13, 1997|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Howard County officials are seeking zoning rule changes that some feel could have an impact on the Rouse Co.'s plan to develop a 517-acre site in North Laurel into a Columbia-like community.

The proposal would allow a number of additional uses -- including distribution warehouses and trucking centers -- in the planned employment center (PEC) zoning category that now covers the Rouse property in North Laurel.

"It's not our intent to change this to a manufacturing zone," said Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. "We're just looking at creating a broader range of uses to make the projects more viable."

The PEC zoning designation is widely seen as a failure since it was introduced in 1985 as a way to attract the types of businesses that fell in between the high-impact uses allowed in manufacturing zones and the retail operations allowed in business zones.

Rouse is asking that its North Laurel site, zoned PEC, be changed to mixed-use to allow the 1,395-home project that would also feature some business and retail space, potentially a more lucrative use of the property.

Opponents of the Rouse project fear that, with the PEC changes, the developer could threaten to put in undesirable business projects if the mixed-use rezoning is rejected.

"They could say, 'If you don't give us mixed-use, we'll build warehouses, trucking centers,' " said Greg Fries, president of the Southern Howard County Land Use Committee. "The timing is strange."

But Alton J. Scavo, a senior vice president of Rouse, said his company wouldn't try to intimidate residents.

"How can I threaten them with something we don't even have?" Scavo said.

Rutter also downplayed the significance of the changes. "Nobody is just going to start putting in warehouses," he said. "There obviously needs to be warehousing, but it must be associated" with the intended uses of the site.

There have been few developments on the 1,200 to 1,400 acres of PEC sites in the county, according to Rutter, who said the additions would make the sites more attractive for development without changing the nature of the zoning.

Rutter said that the timing of the proposed changes -- which will be fine-tuned during coming months -- had nothing to do with the pending Rouse project. They are being suggested now, he said, because these next few months offer the only window available before his department has to take on larger issues, like the General Plan.

The zoning proposal will go before the county Planning Board Nov. 20 for review and then before the County Council in January.

Owners of PEC-zoned tracts say the changes would make their land more marketable and easier to sell.

"The greater number of uses, the broader band you can deal with, the better you're able to respond to fluctuations in the market place," Scavo said.

Officials of the Waverly Woods development in Ellicott City, which has a 300-acre PEC parcel, say the proposed changes won't affect their development directly because they will be trying to attract businesses that would not have an adverse impact on the golf course that winds through the site.

"I don't see us doing warehouses there," said Ronald Spahn, an attorney representing GTW Joint Venture, which owns the property. "But, of course, we support more uses. The more you're allowed to build, the more latitude you have when trying to lease or sell."

Rutter said the impetus for the proposed changes came from the Hopkins Road Limited Partnership's request for permission in 1995 to build a $35 million elderly care center on PEC-zoned land near the John's Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and U.S. 29.

After the County Council amended PEC to allow such developments, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker and Rutter decided to establish a committee to review PEC. It was that committee that proposed the changes, Rutter said.

Richard W. Story, director of the county's Economic Development Authority, said his agency could not comment on specific zoning changes, but the authority would support broadening PEC.

"In an economy as robust as today's, you've got to realize it's probably too restrictive" if no one is building on the land, Story said.

"I think you can broaden the list of uses without altering the intent," Story added.

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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