Zoning reform panel mulled

Council, executive favor getting more input on proposals

`In favor of disclosure'

May 13, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After months of deliberation, delay and dozens of amendments proposed for a 114-page zoning law revision approved last week, Howard County's politicians say they know exactly what to do next - appoint a committee to consider more zoning reform.

That's the suggestion of the County Council's two Republicans - Christopher J. Merdon and Allan H. Kittleman - after watching many zoning procedural changes they proposed die in last week's voting session. Other council members and County Executive James N. Robey like the idea.

Proposals such as requiring disclosure by both sides 30 days before any hearing, and making developers invite area property owners to a community meeting to tell them what is planned near their homes might seem simple enough not to require further study.

But Merdon, an Ellicott City councilman and slow-growth advocate who suggested the committee, said he has found that even developers' attorneys have some good ideas.

For example, if residents have access to developers' studies 30 days before a hearing, shouldn't developers have the same access to residents' studies or complaints? Merdon said that was a point raised by development attorney Richard Talkin. Such ideas made him think a committee should get everyone's opinions before any laws are changed, he said.

Merdon and Kittleman, a western county Republican, invited Robey to join the council's new effort. It would take longer to achieve change, they acknowledge, but would be more thorough than simply submitting a new bill now, they said.

"That's the risk we run," Merdon said of the added time it will take to create a committee, get a report and then go forward with legislation. "The [zoning] bill targeted several problems, but didn't look at the procedures," he said.

Still, taking the time to get everyone's perspective is the best course, he and the other council members agreed.

"It has a lot of merit," Robey said, adding that he looks forward to talking with council members about organizing the committee.

"I think it's a good idea," agreed west Columbia Democrat Mary Lorsung, who was joined by C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, and Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

Talkin endorsed the committee approach, too. "By doing that, you can sit down and talk through proposals for change. I've always been in favor of disclosure," he said.

But Peter Oswald, a southern county community activist in the long, unsuccessful fight against Stuart Greenebaum's Maple Lawn mixed-use development in Fulton, was more skeptical of the committee idea.

"It's OK, but by the time the committee reports there will be very little left to develop," he said. He thinks that what is needed more than procedural reform is simplification of the regulations and the language. "You need a lawyer to interpret them," he said.

By a 3-2 vote along party lines with the Democrats prevailing, the council voted Monday to create a new zone to encourage more senior housing, to require larger landing and takeoff zones for helicopters and to restrict the storage of propane and explosives, along with several smaller zoning law revisions.

During the council's votes on the comprehensive zoning revision bill, Gray and Lorsung opposed most of the Republican amendments and pushed for provisions that would encourage the most senior housing, even in rural western county. A controversy is now raging there over a 147-unit senior housing project proposed on 73 acres at Marriottsville Road and Route 144.

Since no public sewerage is available there, the developer has proposed building an 11-acre community septic system that area residents and county officials are skeptical will work. One Republican-sponsored amendment that did pass on a 3--2 vote with support from Guzzone will limit any similar development in the future to one unit per net acre - after excluding wetlands and steep slopes - instead of two per acre.

In the eastern county, the council rejected another amendment sponsored by Merdon and Kittleman that would have prevented high-density senior housing in Planned Office Research zones - like the one Taylor Manor hospital occupies in Ellicott City.

The amendment would have required senior housing in office zones to come under the eight-unit-per-acre density cap in the law's new Planned Senior Community zone, but it was rejected after warnings from administration officials that such a change would make more assisted living buildings impractical in the county.

In their letter to Robey, Merdon and Kittleman said that despite the council's attempts to redress citizen grievances with the county's development system by creating people's counsel and hearing examiner positions, "it is our belief that ad hoc improvements will not address the concerns of the Howard County community."

They ended the one-page letter by saying that "this will be a monumental task to accomplish, but one that is sorely overdue."

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