Council members tackle rezoning at work session

Issues are discussed, but no votes are taken

`Comp Lite' includes 41 proposals

Panel might not make decisions until April

Howard County

February 01, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County Council members wrestled with the perils of rezoning during a work session review in Ellicott City late yesterday, but no votes were taken and final decisions may be pushed off until April.

The council is working to prepare for formal votes on 41 rezoning proposals left from last year's comprehensive rezoning of the county, and from a study of the seven-mile U.S. 40 corridor from Patapsco State Park west to the Turf Valley golf club and hotel. Members have labeled the review "Comp Lite."

County planners are trying to prepare for urbanization along the mostly commercial highway corridor as part of the transformation from development that began in the 1950s. A vote was scheduled for next month, but that could stretch to April if substantial late changes are proposed, council Chairman Guy Guzzone said.

The toughest challenge, members said, is deciding how to spur new, perhaps innovative, designs and developments without offending longtime neighbors or allowing so many new homes and apartments that schools or roads become more congested.

A 76-acre parcel along U.S. 1, near the former Luskin's shopping center north of Route 175, is a case in point.

It is called the Bluestone property and zoned for industrial or warehouse use, and the county is hoping a combination office-residential project might be built that could spark more upscale development along the corridor.

But Marsha L. McLaughlin, the county planning director, said that preliminary plans may have too many residential units. Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, agreed that could be a problem.

"We have limited commercial land available in Howard County. It doesn't make sense," he said, to use it for new homes, especially when county residents continually complain about congestion.

But Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said that mixing commercial and residential development there "gets to the heart of what we're trying to do on Route 1," and "could be a catalyst" for similar projects as the old commercial corridor is redeveloped.

McLaughlin noted that with interest rates still low and office vacancies dropping, the county could see quicker development than expected after the rezoning.

A most vexing problem, several members said, is trying to decide how to improve the use of land holding older houses, with various owners, along a major commercial highway without hurting adjacent residents.

"This is one of the tough issues - when you have properties that front on U.S. 40," said Ulman, contemplating proposed commercial zoning on a 2.6-acre plot at Frederick Road and U.S. 40 in western Ellicott City.

How, Ulman wondered aloud, can the county change the zoning there without harming the next-door resident?

"Pixie dust" is the answer, joked Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. "You can't do it without a buffer on a big chunk of acreage," which is not there, Guzzone said. For now, said Ulman and western county Republican Charles C. Feaga, who represents the area, it might be best to leave the zoning unchanged - which is what nearby residents want.

Other examples include lots north and south of U.S. 40 on the western end of the corridor near Frederick Road, and in the east, near St. Johns Lane.

A house behind the Mars supermarket on St. Johns Lane north of U.S. 40 presents the same problem, members noted, while access is the difficulty in developing a nearby wooded tract bordering the exit ramp from southbound U.S. 29 onto westbound U.S. 40. Several residents of Upton Road, which is the only access to the land, want their residential street's ambiance preserved.

Turf Valley represented the largest and most contested issue until last week, when the owners, Mangione Family Enterprises, withdrew a request for higher density. Some residents are pushing for a reduction in density on the plans approved about two decades ago that allow 1,379 new homes mixed with offices and stores on the 800-acre property, but no council member brought up the subject yesterday.

One issue that awaits a mediation effort with neighbors is a rezoning request for Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church, on St. Johns Lane north of U.S. 40.

Church leaders want zoning that will allow the growing congregation to construct a two-story, 90,000-square-foot building and up to 500 parking spaces on their 28-acre site to relieve crowding in a 14-year-old chapel.

But neighborhood residents say they were not informed of the church's plans and - worried about traffic congestion - oppose the move. Rezoning would give the church too much leeway, they told the council at a public hearing last week.

Neighbors want the church to use the more traditional conditional-use process, which requires public hearings on detailed plans for the project.

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