Panel makes General Plan suggestions

Zoning appeals, help for farmers among concerns

Board to review ideas

Tax breaks would spur redevelopment, group member says

July 08, 1999|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Replace the Howard County Board of Appeals with an administrative hearing officer.

Help farmers prosper in an increasingly urban setting.

Give tax breaks to developers interested in revitalizing aging neighborhoods.

Those are just a few of the suggestions offered last night by an advisory panel of civic activists and business leaders studying the county's 1990 General Plan.

The 34-member General Plan Task Force met last night at the Columbia Gateway building. It was appointed by County Executive James N. Robey in April to help county officials shape the next General Plan, which identifies specific growth areas in one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the country.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Howard County edition of The Sun incorrectly reported that an advisory panel suggested replacing the Howard County Board of Appeals with an administrative hearing officer. The position would not necessarily replace the panel. Also, Kathryn Mann said that it is residents -- not Board of Appeals members, as incorrectly reported -- who are overwhelmed by the complex zoning language.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The task force has one more meeting -- next Wednesday -- before the Planning Board reviews its suggestions July 29.

After it was appointed, the task force broke up into four subcommittees that explored specific issues related to growth.

Other suggestions from the task force included:

Forming a Department of Resource Protection to establish environmental programs and oversee preservation of wetlands and forests.

Evaluating the availability of business resources and tools for farmers in the rural west.

Establishing downtown Columbia as the county's focal point and year-round entertainment area.

Determining whether extending public water and sewer lines along Interstate 70 will attract new employment opportunities to the county.

Requiring the county Department of Planning and Zoning to compile a biannual report on the progress of the General Plan.

Another suggestion was to create the position of administrative hearing examiner, who would be appointed by the county executive, to replace the Board of Appeals in granting special zoning exceptions.

Kathryn Mann, chairwoman of the balanced growth and environment subcommittee, said board members, who are county residents, are usually overwhelmed by the complex zoning language and overloaded by the work schedule to properly handle cases.

An administrative hearing officer "levels the playing field," she said.

Farmers, the task force said, are pressured by shrinking profits to sell their land to developers and by neighbors urging them to keep their land as agricultural, and need help.

"A strong farm economy is the best defense against rapid development," said Howard Rensin, a member of the subcommittee that studied preservation of the rural west county.

When a task force member suggested increasing the minimum lot size for development in the western county to as much as 20 acres, John F. Breitenberg noted that the change would hurt farmers.

"The only thing they can borrow against is the assessed value of their land," he said. "To the extent that you increase the acreage per lot, you devalue their land."

Land for development in the eastern county is growing scarce, emphasizing the need to redevelop aging residential and commercial areas, said Grace Kubofcik, chairwoman of the community enhancement subcommittee.

One way to encourage revitalization would be financial incentives, such as tax credits and grants, Kubofcik said.

"Community enhancement has to be a principal guideline, and it should be the focus of the next General Plan," Kubofcik said.

After the Planning Board reviews the issues identified by the task force and drafts guidelines, the County Council could hold a public hearing as early as September. Should the council adopt them, the planning department would explore how to reshape the General Plan according to the guidelines.

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