Debate over zoning bill sign of east-west clash

Proposed senior zones stir development fears

Howard County

April 24, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The debate over how to overhaul Howard County's zoning regulations - to cover everything from helicopter landing zones to more varied housing for seniors - is highlighting again the clashing perspectives of the county's urbanized east and rural west.

The County Council is to discuss possible changes to a 114-page zoning bill that includes a proposal for "floating" senior zones at a work session late today. A final vote on the bill, which grew from changes suggested in the General Plan adopted last year, is scheduled May 7.

Some, such as west Columbia Democrat Mary C. Lorsung, want to lower the minimum size of proposed senior developments from 100 units to 50 to make it easier for developers to qualify under the zoning rule. The legislation would allow up to eight units an acre - significantly denser than the minimum for housing in much of western Howard County.

Under the proposed legislation, senior housing could be established in "floating" zones - wherever public water and sewerage and other conditions were met.

The county's over-65 population is due to increase from 7 percent to 16 percent by 2020, and county officials want those retiring baby boomers to be able to stay in Howard County, attracted by one-story homes in communities designed for them. As they age or need help, they could move to different, specialized units in the same developments.

"We want this to be the potential for a real community," Lorsung said about the Planned Senior Community Districts, which are proposed for people ages 55 and older, to match federal regulations.

But western county residents fear more growth, worrying that developers may take advantage of loopholes in a new law to force more changes in bucolic areas.

For example, although the proposed senior zones would have to be in areas with public utilities, according to the bill, people who live in areas without public utilities worry about encroachment.

"You increase density for senior housing and you'll overburden the aquifer. It doesn't belong here," Lee Hupfer protested to council Republicans Allan H. Kittleman and Christopher J. Merdon at the first of two citizens meetings called to give people a chance to talk about the issues. A second, similar meeting was scheduled last night in Ellicott City.

Hupfer, who lives near West Friendship, was one of several speakers Thursday at Triadelphia Elementary School in the western county who generally want to keep development, traffic and congestion out, and suspect that county government is too developer-friendly. "You feel like you're a human speed bump," she said about trying to slow more building.

Susan Gray, an attorney who has fought western county development for years, reminded the 30 people at the meeting that any bill can be taken to referendum, and warned that protections now in the bill could disappear later.

"Age-restricted housing says you can build much denser housing," Gray said, adding that the county's idea of having a "floating" senior zone - one that can be applied anywhere if other conditions are right - is also a red flag.

Others at the Triadelphia meeting worried that a provision to specifically regulate helicopters in the county for the first time may make it too easy for wealthy residents to land in or near residential areas. They want helicopters restricted to airports.

Kittleman has suggested a 600-foot setback from the nearest adjoining property line for a helicopter landing site instead of the 100-foot limit now in the bill.

Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said he is worried that controversy over the floating senior zone could erupt into a divisive fight that could hurt or delay senior developments, but he is not sure how that could play out at the council's discussion and in the upcoming vote.

"I'm a little nervous about the floating zone," Guzzone said. "We don't want another big fight like there has been over Cattail [Creek]," a luxury senior housing development in the western county whose future is tied up in court.

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., county planning and zoning director, reminded residents that under the proposed law, a decision on where senior housing would be located would be made by the elected County Council, sitting as the Zoning Board. A developer of a proposed senior community is seeking a special exception from the Board of Appeals, an appointed body.

County Executive James N. Robey said the county must find places for more housing attractive to senior citizens. "I think we've done a good job of slowing growth to a reasonable level," he said.

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