New process said to ease rezoning for all involved

Rules allowed more time for input on decisions

February 08, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Behind-the-scenes wrangling and haggling in the past year over property considered in Howard County's comprehensive rezoning process were in some cases the critical ingredients that some participants say created a better product.

"I much prefer being able to talk to people, negotiate, as opposed to just making decisions not knowing the subtleties of knowing what people could or could not live with," said County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a Democrat who represents North Laurel and Savage.

Different rules governing the process this time around allowed residents, property owners, developers and attorneys the right to spend hours negotiating with councilmen outside of public hearings.

Conducting the process "as legislation [that] allows continuing dialogue on both text and map amendments allowed a lot more time to think through" changes, said Marsha McLaughlin, county planning director. "We're ending up with better decisions as a result."

That, combined with thousands of e-mail messages and phone calls fielded by the council and its staff, allowed them to make educated decisions.

"There's nobody who could say at the end that they didn't have their say," said Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon.

But after the vote on the bill last week - representing more than 120 changes on 2,660 acres - county officials are thinking about ways to improve the procedures, including how to better notify residents about possible changes.

A 1994 charter amendment passed by referendum made comprehensive rezoning - a once-a-decade process to refocus the direction of development in the county - a legislative matter.

During previous rezonings, the council made the decisions as the quasi-judicial Zoning Board, which forbids members from discussing cases outside of public hearings. As a result of the 1994 change, citizens can also overturn the comprehensive rezoning bill by referendum.

This year, "there was nothing so significant that I would go out on the street and get 5,000 signatures" to oppose, said Peter Oswald of Fulton, who supported the referendum in 1994.

Even though he did not think there were any issues that would drive such an action, Oswald said he was reassured that it is there.

"It is a recourse that is always available," he said.

The council established procedures for the new process. As required by law, the public hearings were advertised in local newspapers, and people could research rezoning requests, using maps posted on the county's Web site. They also required adjoining property owners to be notified by certified letter about applications submitted after the first public hearings.

A little more than half of the applications arrived before the first deadline, however. At certain points, the Department of Planning and Zoning or members of the County Council mailed letters to notify property owners to ensure they knew of the changes.

"When we realized how little input we had from the Route 1 corridor, we sent out notices to everybody," McLaughlin said. "We just felt like the fact that no one was coming in to comment [at public hearings] was not a good sign."

People raised concerns during several public hearings about notification, wondering why signs weren't posted on properties to be rezoned.

But when the Zoning Board established restrictive zoning in the county's rural west in 1993, "it was 60 percent of the county - 96,000 acres - that was rezoned, and there wasn't a single sign," McLaughlin said.

Many properties may be affected by changes to the text of the zoning code, making it difficult to notify owners near affected properties.

"I don't know what we can do to keep aware of these things," said Tom Goodman of Lisbon. He opposed text amendments sponsored by Columbia Democrats Ken Ulman and David A. Rakes that would have allowed up to eight townhouses for senior citizens on commercial land in western Howard.

"It's hard to define who to notify beyond adjacent property owners," Guzzone said.

But most people agreed that the council members made themselves available when asked.

"It was wide open. We could talk to any council member at any time," said Cathi Higgins of Montgomery Road Citizens for Responsible Growth, a group opposed to further commercial development on Montgomery Road in Ellicott City.

Council members said more access was definitely preferable to none.

"People always get suspicious if their elected official says, `I can't talk about that,' " Kittleman said.

"We are elected to represent folks. They have a right to know what we're thinking," he added.

"I would not have wanted to worry about making a decision on a place without being able to meet the people," Rakes said.

In several cases. the council members met with all concerned parties to discuss an issue.

Resident land developer Paul Revelle said Kittleman suggested the first meetings with neighbors of a West Friendship property, which, ultimately, was not rezoned.

"I think there were a number of instances where we really did come together and came to some compromises and ended up with some good results for the community and property owners," Ulman said.

"I still think that for the most part, process-wise, it did work well," he added. "I don't think there's ever a perfect process for something of this magnitude."

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