Rezoning bids renew conflicts over land use

U.S. 40

County officials want to convert residential sites to commercial

Planning panel hears neighbors' concerns

October 12, 2004|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

The public's will has come face to face with the government's will, and the outcome could have broad implications for a broad swath of Howard County, where aging neighborhoods are competing against the desire for commercial expansion.

The tensions are neither new nor unique to Howard County, but they have taken on heightened importance because county planning officials have embraced the idea of converting some residential property along U.S. 40 into office or light commercial uses.

That position is in conflict with not only many homeowners, but also citizens who served on a county-appointed task force that examined how to beautify the seven-mile corridor, mitigate acute traffic snarls and still encourage development.

The strain between preserving the integrity of residential neighborhoods and achieving commercial expansion was evident last week when the Planning Board was buffeted for four hours by scores of residents opposed to rezoning requests in their neighborhoods.

One proposal, in Pine Orchard Meadows, dominated the evening and represented the broader issues inherent in the overall controversy.

Developer Sung Man Kim is seeking rezoning from residential to business so he may demolish three homes on about 2.5 acres on Coventry Court Drive and construct an office building and a restaurant.

The county planning staff, though opposed to Kim's specific request, endorses rezoning the property to planned office use.

The county believes that property and many others along U.S. 40 are no longer suitable for residential use and that other uses should be encouraged to bolster the economy and serve as a "buffer" to the single-family neighborhoods.

That general position was embraced by Sang W. Ho, an attorney representing the developer.

"I realize that if this matter were to be decided by a plebiscite of the people in this room, things would look pretty bleak for this petition," Ho said. "Fortunately, that is not the process.

"Every 10 years or so our officials have the opportunity to take a fresh look at the zoning in the county and decide what is appropriate as our county grows and our needs change," Ho said.

The properties, he added, are "along a major highway. Rezone it to a more appropriate use. ... In 1955, when the Pine Meadows development was built, Route 40 ... was a country road. Today, the single-family homes fronting Route 40 with their existing typography [are] no longer a suitable use."

But neither the residents nor members of the U.S. 40 task force were swayed.

"The good will be interred with your bones, but the evil will live after you," said Ann Jones Koch, co-chair of the task force. "One of the guiding principles of the committee was to honor the past planning of the corridor. ... To take an individual lot here or an individual lot there ... [is] not to the benefit of the corridor."

Ronald Murr, a resident of the area, said the rezoning request is "not a greater good situation. This is a very small parcel that is planned to be used at the gateway of our community by demolishing three homes, which I think is unprecedented."

Robert Siegel, an attorney representing the homeowners, described the Pine Orchard Meadows as a vibrant and "very unified neighborhood." He said commercial development would worsen already severe traffic problems and would impose "tremendous strain" on the community.

The Planning Board continued its hearing until Nov. 10. Its actions will later be considered by the County Council.

The dispute goes far beyond Pine Meadows. At the core is sharp disagreement over how to use aging residential properties abutting U.S. 40.

"This kind of zoning is the kind that communities have fought for my 39 years here," said Angela Beltram, a task force member and former member of the Planning Board and County Council.

The implications of the county's position, she said, extend to other residential areas along the corridor.

"This is typical, old-style strip zoning, she said in an interview. "If you grant it, maybe you'll have something in the future on Dobbin Road and Route 40, and Normandy Drive and Route 40, or Greenway Drive and Route 40. I think it's absurd."

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