Zoning vote delay expected

114-page omnibus bill of rule revisions `too big ... to rush'

Howard County

March 27, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Council is likely to delay voting until May on a 114-page zoning bill that drew scores of worried opponents to a public hearing last week. The bill is so complex that county planners issued an equally thick document explaining each change in plain English. Both are available on the county's Web site.

"It's too big a thing to rush," said western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman, who said he has a score of possible amendments.

"We have to give people a chance to respond," he said, adding that some constituents complained that they learned about the omnibus bill on the day of the hearing and had scores of questions about it.

Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon agreed, and council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said, "My guess is, we won't get through it," at the work session scheduled this afternoon. For now, a vote is scheduled April 2.

The bill is an outgrowth of the 10-year General Plan the council adopted last fall to help chart county growth. For example, the plan calls for more specially designed housing for "active" senior citizens to keep Howard's fast-growing elderly population from moving elsewhere, and more restrictions on the location of large "mega-churches" and commercial day-care centers.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, deputy county planning director, told the council at the public hearing last week that the changes are also "to try to make sure we've got more compatibility," between existing homes and neighborhoods and new projects. As Howard becomes more developed, she said, these things are important to neighborhood preservation.

She said planners feel citizens don't understand the true meaning of a "special exception," and often mistakenly think it is some unusual and undeserved favor granted a developer. The new bill changes the name of the process to "conditional use," meaning, McLaughlin said, "that these uses [things such as communications towers, golf courses and gas stations] are normally permitted" if certain restrictions are met.

More than 150 people at the council's monthly hearing came to protest stricter setback restrictions on church expansions, worried that the new rules would stop Calvary Lutheran Church's expansion on a 5-acre lot in Woodbine. With land scarce and expensive in Howard, the new rules would cut the amount of land Calvary could build on from 75 percent to 48 percent of its Frederick Road parcel.

That plea struck a chord with several council members, including Kittleman, who suggested a different standard should apply to churches in the more rural western county. C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, said a fight over expansion of churches in his district had "split the community apart" and asked if a church with 2,000 members and a 700-car parking lot shouldn't be regulated.

One speaker, Mary Ann Allen, agreed with Gray, saying, "I encourage you to restrict churches."

John Taylor, past president of a slow-growth group called Howard County for Responsible Growth, warned that changes in definitions for group-care facilities are so vague they would "include anything and everything imaginable." Instead of the current language, which restricts the facilities to people "62 years or older, and/or who have physical and/or mental disabilities," the new language says "members of a population needing the services."

Others came to argue over a new "floating" Planned Senior Community zone designed to encourage construction of at least 250 units a year of one-story housing for "active" senior citizens 55 years or older. Speakers questioned everything from the age limit to the effect the zoning change would have. The floating zone could be applied to land anywhere in the eastern county, where public water and sewer service is available, and the developments must have at least 100 units and reserve 35 percent of the land for open space.

Some, like Dusty Toller, chairman of the county Commission on Aging, complained that the changes don't do enough to encourage the special-use homes, while others, such as slow-growth advocate Susan Gray, fear they represent a zoning Trojan horse for developers seeking ways of building more homes per acre.

"We are all concerned," Toller said of his commission, "that the proposal will have little impact on encouraging additional housing for active senior housing." Toller advocated using the federal minimum age of 55, but some speakers and council members wondered if senior citizens with teen-age children could live in a unit, or younger spouses or children who inherit a unit could occupy one.

Because the Planned Senior Community zone would permit up to eight homes per acre where public water and sewer service is available, the county Zoning Board, which is composed of County Council members, would decide the cases instead of the Board of Appeals.

But Linda Black of Woodbine complained to the council that in addition to learning about the bill only one day before the hearing, "This bill is one that definitely benefits developers."

Kari Ebeling of Cooksville agreed, complaining that the revised zoning law language is not specific enough to stop a determined builder.

But McLaughlin said later that concern may be overblown, because buildable land is scarce in eastern Howard, and "there are not that many parcels that qualify" for the new senior housing zone.

Changes in the church regulations may be needed, however, she said.

"We're clearly going to look at that," she said.

The bill and explanation can be viewed on the county's Web site at www.co.ho.md.us

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