Preparing to study Columbia's New Town zoning regulations, the Howard County Council listened last night to residents' opinions on what shape development of the planned community should take.
The council is studying Columbia's New Town zoning after, acting as the county Zoning Board, unanimously denying a Rouse Co. petition to increase Columbia's residential density in an attempt to urbanize the community's downtown.
Chairman Guy Guzzone told an audience of more than 50 people that the council wants to learn more about the zoning process that was created in the 1960s for Columbia and examine "how it has worked and how it can work in the future."
E. Alexander Adams, a Glenwood attorney who was one of the primary opponents of Rouse's petition, told the council that the development company should be treated like any other developer and should not be the "gatekeeper" of residential ordinances in Columbia.
"The gatekeeper should be this board," he said of the council.
Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, said his group opposes giving the council or other governing bodies additional authority to alter Columbia's zoning process.
"There have always been avenues or hearings where the public and public officials alike could advance ideas on New Town zoning or the development of Columbia," he said.
Last night's forum was one of two scheduled public hearings on Columbia's zoning. The second is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23 at Slayton House in Wilde Lake village.
In Rouse's petition for residential density, about 1,600 of the requested 2,141 residential units were planned for the crescent-shaped property behind Symphony Woods that includes the parking lots for Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Throughout eight hearings over four months, the company's proposal was fiercely opposed by residents who feared that the homes would lead to the demise of the pavilion, generate crime and excessive traffic in the area, and put stress on the community's infrastructure.
The Zoning Board balked at granting the petition, saying it wanted a comprehensive draft plan of what the Town Center, with a population of 4,265, would look like with an additional 2,352 people.
Last night, Suzanne Waller, a member of the Town Center Village Board, asked the council to reconsider mixed-used development for the site surrounding Merriweather, possibly at a lower residential density than Rouse had proposed.
"Town Center is very excited about the prospect of getting its downtown the attention it deserves," she said.
After the denial of the density petition, Rouse is aiming to commercially develop the 51-acre site near the pavilion.
The plans call for 800,000 square feet of office space and 400,000 square feet of retail space that could incorporate big-box stores.
The development company has also offered to sell Merriweather to the county, which is studying the feasibility of buying the amphitheater to preserve it as a performing arts venue.
Although Rouse is poised to be sold to Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc. in a $12.6 billion deal that must be approved by shareholders, Rouse officials said they are proceeding with those development plans.
Bill Woodcock, a member of the Oakland Mills Village Board, said the possibility of big-box stores set off "alarm bells" with the board, whose members worry that it might lead to a "massive and adverse traffic situation" and "'60s-era suburban sprawl."
Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, and other county officials have plans to make Town Center more vibrant by giving Little Patuxent Parkway - Town Center's main road, which loops around the mall - a so-called main street atmosphere, with on-street parking and pedestrian walkways to link commercial and residential areas.
The Columbia Association - which remained silent during Rouse's attempt to gain more residential units for the community - is also attempting to be a key participant in downtown development.
At its meeting Thursday, the association board appointed a committee - consisting of the association president, the board chair and the association board representatives from Town Center and Hickory Ridge - to study the association's roles in downtown issues.