Citizen planners tackle rural west

Commercial zoning's impact there considered

Howard County

April 04, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Howard County's citizen planners grappled yesterday with the thorny question of whether new commercial zones could be added in the west without chipping away at those communities' rural character.

The local Planning Board, a panel of five volunteers, will recommend ways to comprehensively rezone the county - a process that started with professional planners late last year and will end with a County Council vote in December, or thereabouts.

Yesterday, the Planning Board began discussing the many proposed changes, some of which came from landowners and some of which were suggested by the Department of Planning and Zoning.

The owners of 16 properties in the west have asked that their residential zoning be changed to commercial, requests that the Planning Board considered with some skepticism. Only one of those proposals has the support of the zoning department.

Members of the Planning Board noted that the county's 2000 General Plan calls for preservation of the western countryside, with the expansion of commercial zoning as an exception rather than as a rule.

"If it's going to be rural, then part of being rural is you're going to have to drive somewhere else to get your services," said J. Landon Reeve, the board's vice chairman.

Marsha McLaughlin, the county's interim planning director, said that is why her department has opposed most of the rezoning requests.

"If you bring everything - in terms of service options - to the west, pretty soon it looks like the east," she said. "Based on how quickly things mushroomed out in Clarksville ... we're real cautious."

Most of Howard County's 15,000 acres zoned for businesses are concentrated in Columbia and along U.S. 1 and U.S. 40. Less than 2 percent - roughly 270 acres - is in the two-thirds of the county known as the rural west, according to county records.

But some businesses in western Howard were opened before there was zoning, and now they are "nonconforming uses" on residential land. That designation comes with restrictions on expansion and leaves little flexibility for moving structures on the property.

Some of the people seeking commercial rezoning in the west own nonconforming businesses. That led McLaughlin to suggest that the nonconforming rules be loosened to allow for more improvements - rather than offering these landowners commercial zoning, which some residents have compared to a blank check. B-2, "general business" zoning, allows more than 80 uses, from movie theaters to department stores.

"We should be able to help them do what they want to do without changing the zoning," said Gary Kaufman, the board's chairman.

Several rezoning requests in the west were next to existing commercial spots, which made the panel wonder aloud whether that is a reasonable expansion or simply the start of a domino effect.

"Where do you draw the line?" asked board member Tammy J. CitaraManis.

Board members appeared to be solidly against one change originally suggested by the professional planners: taking business zoning away from a widow in an attempt to match Highland's zoning lines with the property lines. Mildred Disney Gallis owns 2.5 acres, an acre of which is commercial - a valuable piece of land she said is her sole retirement plan.

Planners are trying to clean up conflicting lines because two zones on one property can be confusing, and makes development more difficult. But in Gallis' case, "it's not a little sliver, it's a significant chunk," said CitaraManis.

The planners agreed, backing away from their original proposal.

"At the bare minimum, I think we would want to keep her piece as is," McLaughlin said, noting that Highland residents have complained about all the lines changes proposed for their town.

Gallis' attorney, William E. Erskine, left the meeting smiling.

"This was a good day for Mrs. Gallis," he said.

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