Zoning hearing draws crowd

Commercial proposals, other development feared

Half of 150 sign-ups testify

Rest due chance to speak at second meeting today

March 12, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

A county board looking for a vision of Howard's development future is hearing the same mantra from dozens of people faced with the possibility of commercial operations moving into their communities: No, no, a thousand times no.

"This is the domino effect we are so concerned about," said Cathi Higgins, who is among those against plans to rezone nearly 40 acres along Montgomery Road in Ellicott City to commercial, proposed in large part because Long Gate shopping center was built to the south in the 1990s.

"If commercial zoning is granted, we will have to come back here every 10 years to try to stop the commercial train from traveling down Montgomery Road," she told the board.

The Planning Board heard four hours of testimony Monday night from people supporting and opposing - especially opposing - proposals that are part of the once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning of the county. Landowners have asked for different zones for hundreds of acres of land, potentially affecting thousands of people in most communities.

Board members will recommend a course of action to the County Council, which expects to vote on changes by the end of the year.

But the Planning Board hearing is not done yet. Roughly 150 people signed up to speak Monday, packing the county's largest chambers, and only half of them got their turn. The rest can return at 7 p.m. today, when testimony will continue in the Tyson Room of the George Howard Building.

People were frustrated to discover that the microphones were not working Monday night, forcing some to yell to be heard.

Most of the opposition focused on two proposals. About two dozen people stood in a show of solidarity as Higgins spoke against the Montgomery Road plans; about a dozen attended from Beaverbrook, a Columbia outparcel, another place where land is proposed for commercial zoning.

Former state Sen. James Clark Jr., who farms across Route 108 from Beaverbrook, joined those railing against an application to turn the old Crown's Pub into a larger winery, and to build a 32,000- square-foot office complex next door. Both pieces of land sit to the south of Route 108.

"It doesn't make any sense," Clark said.

Afterward Donald R. Reuwer Jr., the developer who asked for the Beaverbrook rezoning, said he had told residents that he would no longer seek a rezoning for the office project because "I wasn't going to pursue it unless they supported it."

"It was much to do about nothing," he said of the hearing.

Still, some from Beaverbrook seemed more upset about the winery, which is opening soon in the pub's renovated building but could expand with commercial zoning. They said the small pub draws few customers, and they worried that the change would bring a party atmosphere- and extra cars on an already congested road.

"What we don't need is more traffic," said Mildred Todd, a resident there for 41 years.

People from the St. John's neighborhood in Ellicott City, where new houses are squeezing into spaces left in the old subdivisions, begged for stronger regulations to better mesh new and old. They are frustrated about pipestem driveways, homes built facing the backs of other homes and lots nearly half the size traditional zoning calls for.

Developers are allowed to reduce the lot size if they provide open space. That bothers neighbors because it has had the effect of increasing density by allowing builders to designate wetlands and steep slopes "open space," said St. John's resident Jim Bieda.

"You wouldn't be able to build a house [there] anyway, and now you get credit for that," Bieda said. " ... You bought a swamp - why are you allowed to count that?"

The Dorsey's Search Village Board and some residents came to oppose proposals for apartment zoning on one section and commercial zoning on another near the village center.

Tom O'Connor, who represents Dorsey's Search on the Columbia Council, had an alternative: "This is the best location in Howard County for a planned senior community," he said.

People opposed to commercial zoning along Montgomery Road also thought housing for active older adults would be ideal along the Ellicott City strip because it includes a church and the Howard County YMCA.

But they said they especially want a new elementary school. Councilman Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City is looking for a school site along the road to ease classroom crowding.

A handful of people voiced support for rezoning proposals - from the huge U.S. 1 revitalization plan to small pieces in western Howard.

Edgar W. Zepp III, who wants to build storage space for his heating and plumbing company on Route 108 in Clarksville, asked for commercial zoning to accommodate parking. A neighbor gave it a thumbs up.

"This is a service which is needed," said Frederick W. Glassberg, who helped Zepp with the project.

People who did not sign up to speak Monday can still get their point across by sending written testimony to the board by Monday in care of the Department of Planning and Zoning, or by email to lhill@co.ho.md.us.

Members of the Planning Board expect to begin discussing recommendations March 19. But it is simply the start of a whole new round. Landowners now have two months to send in new rezoning requests, and the board will hold another set of hearings in June.

"It's important to stress it's the beginning of the process," said Marsha S. McLaughlin, interim planning director.

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