Busy road's future is focus

Planning may promote a `Main Street' feel for Route 108, Ulman says

Meeting being held tonight

Zoning change pondered for the Gateway parcel

April 15, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

People will gather tonight to ponder the future of a once-rural road - a highway that now carries more than 18,000 vehicles a day past gas stations, car dealerships and fast-food joints.

Some people are still astonished by how quickly change came to Route 108 in Clarksville, propelled by improvements to the intersection with Route 32 and by Columbia's final village, River Hill. It is not uncommon for folks living in Howard's remaining countryside to point to that one-mile stretch as the symbol of everything they don't want, while nearby residents complain about the tangle of traffic.

"There are improvements that can be and should be made," said County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat who organized tonight's public meeting. "I think it's an area that really has a lot of potential."

He believes community planning could set a better direction for the road and the land around it, promoting "a vibrant, Main Street-type feel." He is expecting to hear a range of problems and suggestions at 6:30 p.m. at the Gateway School, 12240 Route 108.

The old building - temporarily being used by firefighters and police officers since a replacement school opened in Ellicott City last year - will be a key part of the discussion. Residents are worried that car dealerships are interested in the 10-acre site, an area that already has a large auto park and a separate car lot.

Ulman said he is thinking about proposing a more restrictive zone for the Gateway School land, which is now B-2, a "general business" district that allows more than 80 uses. Neither car dealerships nor gas stations would be permitted if the property were zoned B-1, and he is hoping this change would encourage businesses to move into the large 65-year-old brick building instead of demolishing it.

He would also like to see better traffic management - Route 108 through Clarksville has six traffic lights stacked up in a half-mile - and more ways for pedestrians to navigate the area.

Many potential walkers will be moving in soon. Two companies are constructing more than 100 condos each in River Hill near Route 108, with the first buildings expected to be finished in the spring and summer. The mostly two-lane highway, however, has few crosswalks and only a few small sections of sidewalk.

"We have to live with the level of traffic because it's not going to go away, and there's no bypass nor will there be, but I think there's things that can be improved," said Ulman, who envisions a pedestrian overpass reaching from River Hill Village Center to the Gateway School.

A changing community

Mohammad Saleem, a River Hill Village Board member, said he and his wife bought a home in the community eight years ago, when the surrounding town of Clarksville was a quiet place with few businesses, little traffic and hardly any stoplights.

"It's just hard to imagine how fast things have changed," said Saleem, an architect. "The car places and the gas stations - it's a different picture. It's not the same town we kind of fell in love with. ... Obviously, we cannot stop the development. We want to have development that makes sense."

Added Cabell Greenwood, the village board's vice chair: "We'd like to make sure there's a nice blend of services, and we don't have too much of any given thing."

County planners and state highway officials are expected to attend the meeting tonight. Elmina Hilsenrath, chief of the county division of environmental and community planning, which helped citizens seeking a new vision for the aging U.S. 1 corridor, said she is interested to hear how residents think the county can lend a hand on Route 108.

"The Route 1 study took 22 months," she said. "Most communities either don't need or don't want to get into that level of detail. What they really want is to get to what the problem is and solve the problem."

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