Rezoning proposal comes as surprise

Councilman suggests office-institutional area on Montgomery Road

Ellicott City

November 09, 2003|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

A Howard County councilman's suggestion to create an office-institutional zone on a highly controversial stretch of Montgomery Road in Ellicott City has surprised residents, property owners and development interests.

At Thursday night's comprehensive rezoning work session, Ellicott City-Elkridge Republican Christopher J. Merdon asked Council Chairman Guy Guzzone for three minutes to explain his reasoning behind what he described his "toughest issue since coming into office."

The proposed community center transition district is "a low-intensity zone, and it offers the possibility of senior housing," Merdon said.

The owners of several single-family homes - which are on the section of Montgomery Road that is directly across from Long Gate Shopping Center and near Route 100 and U.S. 29 - say they believe the area is not desirable for residents because of traffic, noise and trash.

Institutions such as the YMCA hope to sell part of their parcels to help finance an expansion or, in the case of Bethel Baptist Church, seek to maintain flexibility in the use of their land.

The rezoning application proposed changing about 39 acres to a combination of planned office research (POR) and commercial zoning through the county's decennial comprehensive rezoning process, allowing Bethel Baptist and the YMCA to continue operating while freeing land for development.

Residents in nearby communities such as Wheatfield, however, fear the domino effect of further commercial zoning and envision a senior community where people could live, work, volunteer and shop.

Merdon said a transition district offers the best compromise.

Many communities have objected to POR zoning because it allows uses such as restaurants and banks.

Marsha McLaughlin, county planning director, dubbed the transition district "POR lite" because it removed many planned office research uses that concerned the communities. The regulations allow professional and medical offices, age-restricted adult housing, funeral homes and day care centers, as well as religious facilities, community halls and research centers. Merdon also proposed eliminating service agencies such as insurance, real estate or messenger businesses.

"It would be a low-intensity commercial use or a senior-housing use," Merdon said after the meeting.

The two biggest concerns are traffic and intensity of use, he said.

High-density residential developments for senior citizens would not create much of a traffic burden, nor would they affect the school system's attempt to purchase land in the area for an elementary school, Merdon said.

In addition, if demand for office space decreases, landowners would have another option readily available to them - housing for the county's predicted senior boom - instead of having to seek other commercial uses, Merdon said.

Neighbors at the work session were not pleased with his proposal.

"This is veiled commercial," said David Catania, a Wheatfield resident and member of Montgomery Road Citizens for Responsible Growth, which opposes commercial development.

Of the 27 uses proposed in the transition district, 21 are commercial, he said.

Only conservation areas, museums, libraries, schools and government buildings fit a noncommercial feel, Catania said.

"This is no transition," he added later. "I'm really disappointed."

"I think [council members are] too much in the pockets of developers," said Nicoline Smits, who lives on Roberts Road. "That's what [the developers] have wanted all along."

Merdon disagreed.

He said after the meeting that he chose to proffer the transition district while realizing that interested parties would not like it.

"I knew that, but I still feel it's the right decision. The developer asked me not to do this," he said.

After hearing Merdon's plan, developer J. Chris Pippen, who is working with several landowners, said he still has to study the transition district idea to determine how it would affect his proposal for the area.

"I like POR lite," Pippen said. "It's just a question of where it is, and how much of it is there."

"I don't know if any of [the transition district] should go on Montgomery Road," he added.

Throughout months of discussions, Merdon said, he avoided publicly stating an opinion. "I thought about it several hundred times," he said after the meeting. "It was the most important decision I've had to make in five years. I've probably risked a significant part of my political career in making that decision."

The Montgomery Road issue is easily one of the most contentious of the comprehensive rezoning process.

Thursday's work session was one of four held by the council to advise the Department of Planning and Zoning as it drafts legislation to direct Howard's development. The council expects to vote on the bill early next year.

Although east Columbia Councilman David A. Rakes, a Democrat, said he wants to bring closure to the community by recommending that the Department of Planning and Zoning include the transition zone for the area in its draft legislation, the other three council members were more hesitant to go on the record without more time to consider it.

"We have to put something on the map," said McLaughlin, the planning director.

Councilman Ken Ulman, a Democrat who represents west Columbia, was satisfied with letting the suggestion stand but reluctant to support it immediately. "I didn't feel like I was doing due diligence if I didn't step back and think about it," he said after the meeting.

A final decision is what Charlene Nazelrod awaits. Nazelrod said five generations of her husband Bill's family have lived on Montgomery Road for 105 years.

"It's been horrible," she said. "It's very personal for us. It's our family's legacy. We are the ones who have been there 105 years."

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