Stray parcels tear holes in city's aesthetic goals

Facility that residents call eyesore breaks no rules, officials say

March 03, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

High above the land of earth-toned homes and hidden retail, it looms - a five-story cube painted bright blue, gray and red, a new home for stuff that's outgrown thousands of closets, garages and attics.

The EzStorage self-storage facility about to open on Snowden River Parkway in Columbia looks like everything the planned community was created to combat: big, bright, in-your-face commercial space on top of houses and a playground.

"It's an eyesore," said Phil Rousseau, a retired butcher with a backyard view of the storage tower. "When I go out my door, all I see is that building."

As it turns out, EzStorage has no reason to blend in.

Although it sits across the street from a Columbia neighborhood, the storage center was built on an "outparcel," a piece of land that is not subject to the Columbia Association's annual property assessment or architectural rules.

Columbia has plenty of gaps like that, in part because some Howard County landowners refused to sell their land to developer James W. Rouse as he set out to build his ground-breaking new town on thousands of acres of farmland in the 1960s.

So even in a place where it is hard to find gas stations because signage is so small, where it is easy to miss the regional shopping mall tucked behind berms, storage high-rises and super-sized stores can work their way into the neighborhood mix.

"Just because you live in Columbia doesn't mean there can't be a 57-foot building across the street," said Neil Dorsey, chairman of the Owen Brown Village Board.

Caught off guard by EzStorage, which is set to open next month, the village board last week received copies of maps showing the locations of other outparcels.

"We decided to find out exactly what the zoning is in and around our village so we can be aware of what's potentially able to go in," Dorsey said.

Property owners in lots of communities are sometimes surprised to learn that local zoning allows, say, a Wal-Mart to sprout on the farm down the road. But land-use rules are particularly confusing in Columbia, with outparcels punching holes in the town's master plan.

"Columbia has elements of Swiss cheese," said County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who helped persuade EzStorage to pay $6,500 for trees as a buffer, though the young evergreens hardly block views of the building.

Officials in Dorsey's Search were startled to discover recently that a developer wants to build a strip mall on an outparcel behind the village shopping center. The proposal has raised concerns about increased traffic and the effect on the existing center. Columbia has nine village centers, some of them struggling in a market experts describe as overbuilt.

"We have all these little outparcels," said Columbia Councilman Tom O'Connor of Dorsey's Search. "They're all over the place and we have no control over it except for any political clout we have with the County Council."

Sometimes, people who live on outparcels don't realize it. They will ask the Columbia Association for maintenance services under the mistaken assumption that they belong to the homeowners association, said Warren Raymond, the association's assistant director for open space.

"Occasionally, we get calls from people complaining about the condition of a pathway, and it's not ours," he said.

Thomas M. Downs, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Maryland, College Park, said even the most highly planned communities struggle with zoning issues on their borders and on outparcels.

"Sometimes, people were so taken with the plan that they have no relationship with existing or adjacent properties," said Downs, director of the university's National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education. "It's as if they were just a free-standing self-contained entity.

"A lot of folks would probably be surprised by what could be built around Columbia and in those holes in the doughnut."

On the outparcels and outside Columbia's borders, land use is determined by Howard County. Since the 1970s, the county has zoned the land where EzStorage stands for that sort of light industrial use, county Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. said.

Rutter called the storage facility "particularly insensitive to the aesthetics of the road." But looks alone were not grounds to block it.

"It either complies with the zoning regulations or it doesn't. If it complies, it's approved," he said.

Before the 130,000-square-foot storage facility went up, a car wash stood on the site. But Snozzle's carwash was barely visible over a grassy berm along Snowden River Parkway.

"You could see it, but it wasn't as overwhelming," said Ronald Yaffe, a state job service supervisor who sees EzStorage from his kitchen window.

Neighbors are nostalgic these days about Snozzle's, but it was not always popular, notes Craig Pittinger, vice president of development and construction for Siena Corp., which owned the carwash and is affiliated with EzStorage.

People living in the community did not see much of the carwash, but they heard plenty. Customers soaped and sprayed all hours of the night, radios blaring.

Residents complained several years ago when Snozzle's unfurled a giant American flag to attract customers to the hard-to-spot business.

"So many people complained when we built the carwash," Pittinger said, adding that the storage facility will be quiet and clean and won't generate much traffic. "You can't make everybody happy."

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