Council to vote today on zoning-law change

Measure would let some property owners transfer development rights

Howard County

February 07, 2005|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

It doesn't seem as if 1.25 acres of land - smaller than a typical Safeway - are enough to quarrel over, especially when you have more than 160,000 of them, but they are at the center of a debate that will decide whether large property owners receive or lose millions of dollars.

Although the dispute technically centers on a single property owner, officials on both sides acknowledge that the implications are broader, as they almost always are with zoning issues.

"There are other people out there," said E. Alexander Adams, an attorney representing the property owner. "There are lot of parcels out there that are 20 or more acres."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Howard County edition of the Sun incorrectly reported that some owners of property zoned rural residential in Howard County can sell their density, or building rights, to land zoned rural conservation. Density in rural residential may not be sold. The Sun regrets the error.

The issue was triggered when Howard County Councilman Guy Guzzone introduced legislation to permit owners of property zoned rural residential and contiguous to preserved land, to sell and transfer their building rights to property with the same zoning.

The proposal has touched off a debate, with critics contending the change would produce an unintended windfall for builders, and supporters saying it would ensure fair-market value for property owners and actually preserve more land for the county.

Western Howard County is divided into two zones, rural conservation and rural residential.

Generally, residential developments in the rural conservation zone are cluster subdivisions, which restrict one house for every 4.24 acres. However, density can be increased if the developer purchases what are known as cluster exchange options.

If, for instance, a developer has 42.5 acres in the rural conservation zone, 10 houses could be built and half of the property would be preserved as open space. But if density is purchased, a developer could then place 21 homes on the land, though half of it still would have to be placed into preservation, as would the land from which the density was sold.

In the rural residential zone, one home for every 3 acres is permitted, with half of the land placed in preservation. Property owners there can sell their building rights only to the rural conservation zone. Guzzone's bill would change that.

Adams' client, Cathy Willson, hopes to sell her building rights to a developer in the rural residential zone and then place 20 acres abutting the Patapsco Valley State Park in Ellicott City into permanent preservation.

The Department of Planning and Zoning has never advocated permitting density to be sold within the rural residential zone. Faced with Guzzone's legislation, though, the department won modifications from the Planning Board that would impose the stricter one house for every 4.25 acres for density acquired within the rural residential zone.

Planning Director Marsha L. McLaughlin told the Planning Board that the legislation would provide a "density bonus" to developers. "The intent [of the program] ... was to provide a bonus to large farms," she said. "I don't think the intent was to have a bonus to small [nonfarming] parcels."

With builders willing to pay $30,000 to $35,000 an acre, the financial consequences of the debate are considerable.

The County Council heard testimony on the legislation last month and is scheduled to vote on the measure today.

The Planning Department's proposed restriction, if enacted, would mean at least a 30 percent decrease in the value of Willson's land, Adams said.

"When you're talking $35,000 an acre, what developer is going to pay that for 4.25 acres when he can build the same number of units elsewhere on 3 acres?" he said. "The difference would be substantial."

Adams said the county was focused on the wrong numbers. "Marsha is talking about this `density bonus,' when, in fact, when you use the density exchange program, you're actually preserving more property," he said. "What she's ignoring is that you're actually preserving more land.

"I believe very strongly in the program. It has worked very well, when you look at how much preserved land we have. It has worked for the farmer, the land owner, and it has also worked for the development community."

McLaughlin, on the other hand, believes that allowing density to be exchanged within the rural residential zone without restrictions would lead to more homes there than envisioned by the county.

Adams said that if Guzzone's bill is passed with the Planning Board restriction, his client could elect to develop her land, which would mean building about nine homes encroaching on parkland.

"What she would prefer to do," he said, "is, because she has a horse operation there and it's next to Patapsco State Park, sell the density and she could get full value for her property."

And it all hinges on 1.25 acres - and lots of money.

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