Rakes' plan for church stalls

Planning Board rejects moving boundary line

Pentecostal offices seek move

Councilman trying to help congregation sell land

Simpsonville

May 21, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County Councilman David A. Rakes would love to see the Pentecostal Church of God move its regional offices from Simpsonville to the troubled Oakland Mills Village Center, and perhaps begin some community work there.

To jump-start that process, Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat, is trying to help the church sell and develop the 28 acres it owns along congested U.S. 29 in River's Edge. But his failure to clearly state his intentions nearly torpedoed the plan.

Rakes asked the county Planning Board last week to recommend moving an important boundary line to advance the church plan, but he didn't tell the board members his true purpose - which prompted them to reject the idea.

"I didn't have all the facts. I wasn't able to go [to the planning meeting]. It's not a secret or anything," Rakes said this week. "There are no secrets out there."

Despite the board's action, Rakes said he plans to submit the proposed change to the County Council.

The boundaries of the county's five planning districts are vital for determining how many homes can be built in each area annually, and how the county law limiting construction around crowded schools is applied. The Columbia district has more than 400 housing allocations available for new homes, though there are none available in the southeast, where the giant Emerson and Maple Lawn Farms projects have taken them all for the next several years.

The county currently allows only 1,750 new homes a year countywide, compared with 2,500 a year in the 1990s.

Instead of explaining his proposal to the Planning Board, Rakes sent a council staff member to the board meeting to carry his message that his proposal to move the General Plan boundary for the Columbia planning district south of Route 32 was merely a "housekeeping" measure.

Board suspicious

The board refused to endorse Rakes' request, suspicious that it was not really about the fact that some children who live south of Route 32 attend school in Columbia, and moving the boundary line would put them in the Columbia planning district.

"What I've heard doesn't make any sense to me," board member Tammy CitaraManis said at the meeting.

"I think it's more for [housing] allocations than schools," board member Gary Kaufman added. He was right, Rakes now says.

Marsha McLaughlin, county planning director, said she also opposes moving the boundary south to the Middle Patuxent River, as Rakes wants, though she "could live with" moving it south to Route 32.

"We wanted these boundaries to be visible to people so they could relate to them," she said, noting that the river, though somewhat visible, splits a statistical census area. The boundaries should also remain stable to provide predictability for students, parents, residents and developers under the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, the county law that limits development around crowded schools, she said.

The episode shows how complicated decisions about land use can get in Howard County, where residents and their government want to limit growth to prevent congestion, but also want to allow enough building to reap revenues to pay for new schools, roads and other infrastructure.

Church of God Bishop Martin Taylor said that suburbia is crowding in on the Simpsonville site, which is used each summer for camp meetings and youth summer activities.

Neighbors complain about noise each summer from children playing, U.S. 29 keeps expanding and the amount of church land available for development keeps shrinking because of the expanding flood plain and tighter county environmental regulations.

"We have basically outgrown these facilities," Taylor said. He plans to sell to a developer and move his regional headquarters somewhere else in the county, which he said is conveniently located amid his Maryland, Delaware and Washington territory.

Developer Donald R. Reuwer Jr. said he has been informally advising Church of God officials for years. About half the land is in the Middle Patuxent River flood plain, and the rest could hold either 22 single-family homes or 89 apartments for senior citizens, Reuwer said. The church has not submitted a specific plan because the dearth of housing allocations in the southeast has them blocked.

Trying to speed work

Moving the planning district line would also speed work on a 30-acre townhouse/office complex planned for the northeast corner of Cedar Lane and Route 32, but Rakes said he knows nothing about that.

Larry and Gwen Peters and Malcolm M. Coate, both longtime residents of Cedar Lane, are getting on in years, Gwen Peters said, and want to sell their land.

"We do want to move. My husband's ready to retire. We lived there 35 years," she said. "It's time to go."

With help from attorney David Carney and Reuwer, they won rezoning for their combined 30 acres to allow about 140 townhouses and a two-story, 52,000-square-foot office complex nearest the intersection.

But the project can't proceed without a housing allocation, and that could force a delay until 2008 if the project stays in the southeast district.

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