Plan to rezone homes denounced

Coventry residents say more business activity would hurt neighborhood

Ellicott City

September 17, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's planners are trying to guide growth in a seven-mile stretch of the U.S. 40 corridor over the next two decades with a recipe of proposed zoning changes, but group of western Ellicott City residents says its neighborhood is fine just as it is - and no thank you.

The major uncontested focus is on the future of large, older commercial centers such as Normandy Shopping Center and Chatham Mall, but residents of the Coventry housing development on the strip's less-developed western end oppose smaller changes proposed near them.

"They're cannibalizing inexpensive residential land for commercial uses," and "giving in to the almighty dollar," said Mary Catherine Cochran, a Coventry neighborhood resident helping galvanize local opposition to zoning changes proposed by the county.

A citizens task force appointed to review plans for the corridor agreed with the Coventry residents, but county government planners see things differently.

Noting traffic congestion and increased commercial development along the corridor, the planners have suggested rezoning the three homes on Coventry Court Drive nearest U.S. 40 and 12 more along Frederick Road from Pine Orchard Lane to Centennial Lane, to low-level commercial/office use as a way of buffering remaining homes from the highway.

An investor who bought the three Coventry Court Drive houses wants a more drastic change to retail commercial zoning for an office building and a restaurant.

"The county was trying to look for a way to give some commercial uses, but not a typical strip commercial," said Steven M. Johns, a county planner working on the study.

The changes are a small part of what county officials call "Comp Lite," zoning issues left over from last year's once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning.

Committee formed

To help make decisions, the county created a citizens committee to study the stretch of U.S. 40 and make recommendations. The committee did not adopt the county's suggestion for even limited commercial zoning on these parcels.

The county Planning Board will hold a public hearing Oct. 7, and the County Council will have the final say in a vote that is likely early next year.

Last night, dozens of residents rallied in their neighborhood and then met with their county councilman, Republican Christopher J. Merdon, in the council's chamber to make their case.

"I have a really big problem with tearing down all the [homes]," said resident Elizabeth Rhodes. "If you let this happen, what's going to happen in a few years to houses next to those?"

Residents say the area's older brick ranchers are perfect for the county's growing population of seniors and very popular.

Backed by a phalanx of about 70 residents who brought protest signs, Cochran argued that the rezoning would violate the spirit of the county's General Plan, which lays out goals for the corridor that concentrate on solving traffic problems, preserving the environment and encouraging commercial redevelopment of older centers.

Merdon made no promises except to carefully listen to all sides of the argument before deciding the issues.

Last year, he pointed out, he opposed rezoning the Frederick Road homes before the decision was shelved.

"No decisions whatever have been made on this," he told the group.

Sang Oh, an attorney and former aide to County Executive James N. Robey, represents Sung Man Kim, owner of the three Coventry Court Drive homes on 2.3 acres at the intersection with U.S. 40 behind Clark's Hardware.

Offices, restaurant

Kim wants commercial zoning to build a 15,000-square-foot office building and a family restaurant.

Johns, the county planner, said Frederick Road, where the other 12 homes are situated, has recorded traffic levels as high as 850 cars per hour.

"Folks with frontage on Frederick Road said they can barely pull out of their driveways," Johns said.

Lisa Hasch, who also lives in Coventry, said the zoning the county is proposing would result in more traffic.

"It's still our community. Nobody is unhappy living on that street," she said, adding that even with a Kiwanis baseball park just west of the homes, people aren't complaining about lights, traffic or noise.

Kim took his chances in buying the three homes, Hasch said.

"I'm hoping he can rent them or sell them and make more money. He took that chance, buying residential," she said.

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