Hearing set tonight on panel's U.S. 40 proposals

Howard County

October 07, 2004|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

U.S. 40 is nothing if not eclectic, with its asphalt jungle car dealerships, sprawling shopping centers, boutiques and even an adult bookstore.

It is also traffic-clogged, not particularly appealing aesthetically and a peril to pedestrians.

A citizens commission spent most of a year examining how to beautify and unclog U.S. 40 while promoting development along the seven miles that cut across Howard County.

Its recommendations, many of which would require zoning changes, have been presented to the Planning Board, which will hold a public hearing on them at 7 p.m. today at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

The County Council is scheduled to take public comments Nov. 15.

The task force neither saw nor formally approved the final report before the county posted it in on its Web site and forwarded the recommendations to the Planning Board.

Angela Beltram, who sat on the task force and is a former County Council member, said the county had to cut corners if the report was to be a part of tonight's hearing. She also pointed out that although the task force had not voted on the final document, it did approve the recommendations individually as its work progressed.

Still, Beltram said, "We'll let our views be known" about the process.

Elmina J. Hilsenrath, chief of the Division of Environmental and Community Planning, said the county has never required any task force to formally adopt a final report because its members have previously endorsed recommendations on an individual basis.

Among the most notable of the task force's proposals are:

Creating mixed-use centers, two to four stories high, with retail space on the first floors and housing on the others. One is proposed around the Normandy Shopping Center and a second at Chatham Mall. A smaller center is suggested at Frederick Road and St. Johns Lane. The centers would be within a quarter-mile of the greatest population "to encourage walking rather than driving."

Identifying land for potential development or redevelopment, and breaking the U.S. 40 corridor into segments, each of which would have its own character, or "sense of place," by promoting "similar land uses, architectural [designs] ... landscaping and signage."

Adopting more rigorous design standards, and requiring landscaping to avoid the sterile appearance of the offices and stores that dominate both sides of the road, as well as improving traffic flow into and out of commercial developments.

Encouraging higher-density residential development, such as apartments, senior living units and townhouses, to serve as buffers between retail and commercial developments and single-family neighborhoods.

Perhaps the greatest, but most difficult, of the task force's recommendations deal with the area's acute traffic problems.

The report says that the intersections along U.S. 40 and closest to U.S. 29 "fail during morning and evening rush hours."

Traffic along the road, the report adds, is "both difficult and hazardous," and it warns that the problem will only be compounded as congestion on Interstate 70 increases and more motorists divert to U.S. 40.

"Additional housing, retail space and office space will require transportation improvements ... to mitigate the congestion that, if allowed to grow unchecked, could eventually make Route 40 a less desirable place for homes and businesses," the task force says.

Among the projects that should be given priority, the task force says, are making improvements to the U.S. 40 ramp to southbound U.S. 29; expanding I-70 to six lanes between U.S. 40 and U.S. 29; and broadening Marriottsville Road to four lanes between Old Frederick Road and Frederick Road.

"We have gridlock now," Beltram said. "It's a problem, and we recognize it."

Achieving extraordinary improvements in transportation may be difficult because they would cost tens of millions of dollars and are subject to state and federal decisions, but Beltram said that only heightens the need for the county to do a better job in determining priorities and fighting for them.

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