Exemplary process, inevitable pain

Comment

July 16, 2000|By C. FRASER SMITH

ONE MAN in the small, rapt audience walked into the hallway fuming about betrayal. A member of the Howard County Zoning Board, he said, had sided with a developer just when the little people needed him most.

The developer, Stewart Greenebaum, sat quietly during the zoning board's work session last Monday night. He said little after the meeting either -- proof to some that things were, indeed, going in his direction.

Mr. Greenebaum wants to build 1,100 or so residential units and several eight-story office buildings on 500 acres of Howard County land in Fulton. The zoning board is tailoring his proposal and preparing for a final vote.

Approval seems likely, and while no one relishes the dislocation of the project's neighbors, the outcome seems to have been pre-ordained by county policy-makers who designated this area for mixed-use development: residential and commercial.

At last Monday's work session, the shape of the development and the board's implicit decision to approve it were clear to the man who raged against the zoning board and to everyone in the audience.

After considerable discussion, handled skillfully by Councilman Guy Guzzone, the board seemed to agree on several important issues.

Residential construction should not proceed until money is in hand for construction of various road improvements -- or in three years if the money is not obtained.

The project's density will be 2.3 units per acre -- not 2.0 as requested by the project's neighbors or 3.0 as allowed by the county zoning.

The number of elderly housing units will be increased from 50 to 100.

The percentage of space devoted to employment-generating office buildings may be increased.

The maximum number of residential units that can be put up in a single year will come down from the 150 requested by the developer to something closer to 120.

Some construction on commercial buildings might be permitted before the roadwork is completed.

These agreements, tentatively reached, arose during a workmanlike discussion that only occasionally pitted the board's Democrats against its two Republicans.

At one point, Mr. Guzzone wondered if some concerns about the project's density might be eased if it were extended from 12 to 14 years. Christopher Merdon, one of the Republican members, said he thought the residents would be happier if the disruption inevitably caused by the work were limited, not extended. That idea was shelved.

There was consensus on the question of density: A majority of the board seemed of the opinion that 2.3 units per acre was a reasonable compromise by the developer. He might have proposed a much higher number under existing zoning and county planners have "allocated" new units to this area with the thought that developments of this sort will provide them.

"Allocations are king," Mr. Guzzone said. And then he straightforwardly offered a bit of political realism.

If the allocations are not used in this development, and built gradually, they can be used elsewhere and immediately by other developers.

"I have to think about my district," he said. He didn't want more building there, he said. Mr. Merdon wondered if that parochial concern would be demonstrated on behalf of the whole county.

Board member Vernon Gray said he thought the allocation process was, in fact, working for the whole county now. Growth was being satisfactorily controlled, he said. That view seemed to prevail if only on the basis of the Democrat's 3-2 majority.

Mr. Guzzone took the point further. He said he thought the county's mixed-use development concept, as represented here by Mr. Greenebaum's proposal, was providing advantages not available under other zoning regulations.

Mr. Merdon and Allan Kittleman, the other Republican board member, pressed their colleagues to think about adding more commercial space. The county's policy-makers say they want more job development activity, they said, and here is an important opportunity to create it.

The developer was asked to recompute his proposal to see if that could be done.

"Everything has to hang together," Mr. Gray observed. Every change has an implication: If more commercial space were ordered, less space might be available for housing: fewer senior citizen units, perhaps, or fewer for rent. Similarly, if the commercial buildings were reduced from eight to six stories, the change would have an impact on the balance of the plan.

Mr. Gray said he wanted to see if the underlying concept will work: "You can work here, and you can live here as well."

Neighbors say the concept is designed to mute opposition, and they doubt that it will, as predicted, reduce traffic.

At some point, Mr. Guzzone said, the "tweaking" of a proposal becomes a shell game played by people without all the requisite information. The board asked the developer to consider its requested adjustments and report findings as soon as possible.

How long will that take, Mr. Guzzone asked.

The developer's lawyer, Richard B. Talkin, held up one forefinger and then said, smiling, "One week."

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

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