Villages' election savvy urged

Grill candidates on zoning, board members advised

Dorsey's Search shares example

Residents fear council will pass land-use changes

August 20, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

As county elections approach, Dorsey's Search residents are pushing Columbia's villages to be prepared to grill County Council candidates about where they stand on comprehensive rezoning, a review of land uses in the county that is expected next year.

Dorsey's Search residents recently successfully thwarted a developer's plan to build a strip shopping mall in the village, but that victory could turn to defeat if the County Council changes the zoning of the land involved.

"We won round one, but it can still change," said Tom O'Connor, the Dorsey's Search representative on the Columbia Council. "[The developers] can come back with a whole new plan."

During a meeting of Columbia village board members he invited to Dorsey's Search last week, O'Conner warned that the rezoning issues faced by Dorsey's Search are shared by other villages.

The land for the proposed strip shopping center in Dorsey's Search is an outparcel, which means that it is not subject to the Columbia Association's strict architectural standards.

The proposal hit a roadblock when the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning reported in March that there was no mistake in zoning the land residential, as the developers had argued.

"It's important for us to know what the outparcels are around us that would be up for this rezoning," O'Connor said.

Outparcels dot the Columbia area, where some landowners refused to sell to developer James W. Rouse as he was beginning to accumulate land in the 1960s.

In Owen Brown village, a five-story storage facility was built this year on an outparcel near a residential neighborhood, much to the dismay of residents. Soon after that development, members of the Owen Brown Village Board obtained copies of maps showing the locations of other outparcels so they would not be surprised again.

The Dorsey's Search shopping center, proposed by Security Development LLC of Ellicott City, would be built on an 8-acre tract at the southeast corner of Old Annapolis and Columbia roads. It would include a 15,000-square-foot Walgreen's pharmacy; a two-story, 21,600-square-foot retail and office building; a fast-food restaurant; a bank; a gas station; and a car wash.

Residents fear it would bring too much traffic, hurt businesses at the nearby village center and create a domino effect that could lead to commercial development of other land in the area.

"It's going to be critically important to the residents of Columbia that we have County Council members who are aware that we have residential neighborhoods, and it only takes something like what has been proposed for Dorsey's Search, for example, to significantly alter the character of the neighborhood," said Deborah Seate, chairwoman of the Dorsey's Search Village Board.

"Suddenly, you're a Route 40 commercial zone. It's that type of thing that's at stake in the election," she said.

O'Connor said the village was notified "on the sly" about the possible development and had more time to prepare to fight it. But he warned other village representatives that such a battle would be costly.

Dorsey's Search spent about $3,500 on a lawyer and a land-use expert, but the village was prepared to spend up to $20,000, said Jackie Felker, the village manager.

Representatives of other Columbia villages at the meeting last week were distressed that such development could happen in Columbia - where covenants govern the community's appearance - with little knowledge of the residents.

"We need to think about how we can force the County Council to listen to us," said Mohammad Saleem, a member of the River Hill Village Board. "They cannot ignore the [village] boards."

O'Connor told the village representatives that it is important to make County Council candidates commit early to their stances on comprehensive rezoning, and he handed out a list of potential questions that villages could ask candidates before the Sept. 10 primary.

"Get the commitment from them up front, and do it publicly," he said. "If they [later] wander off the beaten path, we can hold them to it."

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