Howard County's five citizen planners jumped into a contentious Columbia rezoning case last night and offered an idea they hope will mollify everyone.
The county's professional planners from the Department of Planning and Zoning had recommended earlier that two sections of land in Dorsey's Search be rezoned, prompting an uproar in the community.
On 8.3 acres at Old Annapolis and Columbia roads, the planning department recommended a zone that would allow 15 apartments an acre. On 4.5 acres at Columbia Road and Route 108, the department suggested "planned office research" zoning (POR), which permits offices and senior housing.
The change would be part of the county's once-a-decade exercise in comprehensive rezoning, rethinking the landscape and how it is used. But last night, the five-member Planning Board rethought the Dorsey's Search plan. Board members noted that residents are upset by the plans of apartment zoning and prefer senior housing.
"Why not make the whole thing POR?" suggested board member Linda Dombrowski.
"That might be the right answer," acknowledged Steven M. Johns, a county planner involved in the rezoning effort.
On another contentious issue - the future of Montgomery Road in Ellicott City - the board held off on discussions, hoping that a key uncertainty can be resolved first: whether education officials will buy land there for a public elementary school.
"I don't think we know enough," said Marsha McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, noting that a site could be picked in a few months.
Cathi Higgins, a founder of the 5-year-old Montgomery Road Citizens for Responsible Growth, which is opposed to the commercial rezonings proposed along the byway was pleased that the board put off its discussion.
"We'd rather wait to see it done right than hurry it along," she said.
Landowners want to switch nearly 40 acres of residential land to commercial along Montgomery Road, opposite Long Gate shopping center. The stretch includes modest homes, Bethel Baptist Church and the Howard County YMCA, though the church and the Y say they are not planning to move.
The people who live in the houses say their once quiet lifestyle has been turned upside down by the center, built in the 1990s after the last comprehensive rezoning. They think the only development that makes sense now is commercial.
Meanwhile, public school officials dealing with enrollment surges in the area are searching for a site near Montgomery Road. They are talking to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post about selling some of its 28 acres, located behind the properties proposed for rezoning. School officials are also talking to the YMCA, McLaughlin said.
The County Council expects to decide at the end of the year how land in Howard should be zoned. Because the Planning Board will offer a recommendation, people in the many neighborhoods around Montgomery Road who are opposed to the change have lobbied hard, sending nearly 100 letters urging the panel to see things their way.
They believe the area should remain residential, and - as in Dorsey's Search - some suggested senior housing.
Rezoning the property owners' land to commercial "is like giving them a blank check," said Karen Jeffries, who lives behind the YMCA.
"If they do the comprehensive rezoning before they find out if a school is really going to be built there, I think we'll never have a chance of getting a school," she added.