Rouse Co. defends plan for rezoning

Board hears testimony on Town Center project


October 21, 2003|By Larry Carson and Laura Cadiz | Larry Carson and Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Rouse Co. officials sought last night to refute criticism of its plan to rezone commercial land and add thousands of new residents to Columbia as the Howard County Zoning Board heard the seventh night of public testimony on the proposal.

The meeting ended at 10:15 p.m. with a promise from board Chairman Ken Ulman, a West Columbia Democrat, that Nov. 3 will be the eighth and final session on the matter. "The five of us are committed to staying as late as it takes to finish on Nov. 3, even if it's 2 or 3 a.m.," Ulman said.

During the hearing, E. Alexander Adams, a Glenwood attorney opposing Rouse's plan to turn the town's central core into a vibrant downtown, closely questioned several company witnesses.

Rouse wants to add 1,600 residential units to the 60-acre parcel that surrounds Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion, which would be converted to a smaller but year-round theater. The plan would bring in an estimated 2,352 additional residents to Town Center, whose population is about 4,265.

Howard Research and Development Corp., the Rouse subsidiary that developed Columbia, "has been given tremendous preferential treatment," Adams said. "I don't think it's fair."

The attorney said he represents clients in western Howard who want to develop new homes, but can't because of the county's strict limit on the number of new units per year. Adams said he feels the county is unfairly favoring the Rouse Co. over other developers in the zoning change.

Adams sought to attack company assertions that building houses and condominiums will produce more revenue benefits for Howard County than leaving the land for commercial use. Rouse consultant Paul S. Tischler of Bethesda testified that to match the projected revenue the county would get from Rouse's proposal, nearly three times the commercial square footage would be required.

Adams also questioned Tischler's figures for the number of public school students the housing might produce.

A group of eight proponents of more affordable housing in the new residential community also attended the hearing.

Dennis Miller, Rouse vice president and general manager of Columbia, objected to what he termed "disingenuous, skewed" attempts to describe the company's position. Miller defended the fiscal impact study the company commissioned Tischler to do and said new residential units planned for Town Center would be similar to the five-story, mixed-use building about to be built on a 0.8-acre site where Columbia's first movie theater once stood.

Throughout the public hearings, which began in July, some residents have been lobbying the Zoning Board to deny the petition, arguing that the company has not supplied sufficient detailed information about its development plans. Critics also fear the influx of residents will burden the town's facilities.

Another complaint is that the 5 percent that Rouse wants to designate as moderate-income housing is insufficient. The county's Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing and the African American Coalition of Howard County have attempted to persuade Rouse to increase the amount to 15 percent.

Still, many Town Center residents applaud Rouse's plan, hoping that the extra people will create a bustling urban atmosphere.

The Zoning Board -- which is composed of the five County Council members -- has not scheduled a vote on the case.

The Town Center site that Rouse is eyeing for development is zoned for commercial use. If the company's plan is approved, the site could have mid- or high-rise mixed-use buildings with 400,000 square feet of office space and 100,000 square feet each for big-box stores and other retail.

Rouse's petition to increase Columbia's density from 2.35 to 2.5 dwelling units an acre would result in an additional 2,141 residential units for Columbia. After Town Center, Oakland Mills is slated to get 150 units, mostly for a proposed senior apartment building on the vacant 1.7-acre lot owned by Exxon Mobil Corp. in Oakland Mills Village Center.

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