Meeting on zoning bid fails to quell neighbors' ire

Landowner seeking right to build office park offers no specific plan for parcel

June 22, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

While landowners, developers and Howard County officials see a more urban eastern county coming, resentment is rising in people like Maria Alvarez, a 17-year resident of the fast-growing Route 100 corridor.

Faced with the chance that an office park proposed along Route 103 on 27 wooded acres north of her Woodland Village townhouse community might leave her looking at a five-story building instead of trees, Alvarez believes county government is not looking out for her.

"When we first moved here in 1989, you could fire a cannon down Route 108 and not hit anyone. They don't want to leave any green area," she said.

The rezoning was one of dozens of zoning proposals voted on by the County Council in March that angry residents have petitioned to referendum in the November 2006 election.

But landowner Nancy Cavey is one of eight who have submitted their parcels individually again, using another process -- including a large commercial housing project called Blue- stream proposed for U.S. 1 in Jessup. A community meeting last week that Cavey was re- quired to sponsor to explain her plans to residents appears to have fueled their anger because she has no specific plan yet for the property.

Marsha L. McLaughlin, the county planning director, said residents' anger is "unfortunate" because "the Cavey family has been there for a long time. Their property was split right down the middle [by Route 100], leaving them two small pieces on the interchanges." Office uses seem appropriate, she said, partly because the highway noise would be too great for homes.

The project is under review by county planners, and a Planning Board hearing will follow. Ultimately, Cavey's project will be decided by the Zoning Board -- composed of the same County Council members who in March approved the zoning she wants.

Ronald Schimmel, an attorney for Miles and Stockbridge who is handling Cavey's case, said the council made the right choice.

"It's what the administration has proposed. It takes advantage of a valuable intersection in the county," Schimmel said. "It's vitally important for economic development that we preserve that strategic parcel," Schimmel said, because Howard County needs commercial development to help pay for services to residents.

But those critical of Cavey want what they see as a transitional use such as senior housing, not offices, they said. Offices, they fear, could bring five-story buildings to replace their view of trees, along with more traffic congestion.

And residents increasingly seem to hold County Council members responsible for these problems, several said. Councilman David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat, represents the area.

"I would not vote for him again if he were the last person on the ballot," said Mary Ann Wright, president of the Pembroke Homeowners Association -- one of four developments of about 400 homes across Route 103 from Cavey's land.

"I'm not sure the councilmen understand why people are so angry," said Howard Weinstein, a past president of the Pembroke association.

"The lawyers and developers do this for a living. Council members get paid. The only people who get forced to do this without compensation is us. That's not fair," Weinstein said. Residents also distrust a system that allows elected council members to take campaign contributions from developers and then vote on land-use issues.

Council members say the individual rezoning Cavey is seeking uses a different process that requires them as Zoning Board members to decide the issue on narrow legal grounds and prohibits them from publicly discussing it.

But the distinction between members' duties as county councilmen and Zoning Board members appears lost on residents of the Woodlands and Pembroke Village townhouses.

"The way I see it is the County Council is the same as the Zoning Board. It's a conflict of interest," said Alvarez, vice president of the Woodland Village Board.

She, like others among the approximately 50 people who attended the community meeting called by the landowner last week at the Elkridge library, came away more angry than before.

Residents want a specific plan to study, she said, but Cavey and her planner want the same zoning that the County Council approved -- two types of office zoning that could cover more than 40 possible uses.

Weinstein labeled that "blank check rezoning," because each zoning designation allows for multiple actual uses.

"I've lived here for 15 years. I fully understand that Howard County needs to grow and prosper," Wright said.

She added "[Cavey] has a right to do with her property whatever she wants, but she has to consider the impact of what she does."

Some residents who knew about the rezoning are angry because the County Council did not do what they wanted in voting on the comprehensive rezoning bill in March. The residents favored lighter density along Route 103 nearest their homes and heavier uses in the rear. Instead, the council approved the opposite.

Other residents, including Alvarez, said they got no notification and knew nothing about the proposal until recently, even though the issue was discussed during the past two years as part of the once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning process, and nearby associations were aware of it.

Still, at a meeting June 7, council members discussed possible changes to the comprehensive zoning process that could improve notification procedures and make it easier for residents to follow events.

Weinstein said more is needed than just tinkering.

"The system is so bad, rotten and disorganized, so dysfunctional. If they don't make major reforms, people are just going to get angrier and angrier," he said.

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