Officials to seek compromise on western county

Tighter subdivision controls said to be at odds with owners' rights

August 17, 2005|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

In an attempt to quell a storm of opposition, county officials will seek a compromise on their proposals to further curb development in western Howard County.

The effort, though, will be a delicate balancing act because the principles driving the two sides are diametrically opposed.

On one hand, officials believe it would be a mistake to completely abandon the principle of tightening controls on subdivisions in the rural region of the county, while critics view the effort as, in effect, land confiscation that could cost some property owners millions of dollars.

Hoping to resolve the controversy, Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, will assemble a committee that will seek to frame guidelines to mollify both sides.

"We're open to better ideas," McLaughlin said. "We need to figure out a way to preserve more land in the west while still acknowledging the concerns of the citizens."

The size and composition of the committee have not been determined, but McLaughlin said it will include developers, farmers and members of a task force that analyzed how effectively the county's general plan has been implemented and where changes are needed.

"A committee of five is too small," she said, "but 20 is too large. It's hard to get anything done with that many [members]."

Before the committee begins its work, though, McLaughlin said it is essential that the county's data on land preservation be verified or modified, if necessary. Many critics have said that the county is using selective figures, and claim that the county is far closer to achieving its land preservation goals than it believes.

The committee's recommendations will be subject to deliberations and changes by the Planning Board and County Council, where sharp differences on the issue also exist.

McLaughlin said she expects to appoint the committee members soon. She hopes to have a compromise proposal before the Planning Board by late next month or early October and before the County Council in November.

The changes, as proposed last month by the Department of Planning and Zoning, would greatly curtail the ability to build housing in the region zoned rural conservation (RC), which includes most of western Howard County and is the primary focus of the county's preservation efforts.

The key changes would:

Restrict cluster subdivisions in the RC district to one unit per 10 acres from one unit per 4.25 acres.

Ban the selling of density, or building rights, from one RC property to another with the same zoning.

Reduce over three years to 150 from 250 the number of housing units permitted on RC property.

The changes were proposed primarily to appease state officials, who believe the county's policies have encouraged excessive growth in the west. They have threatened, in effect, to remove the county from the state agriculture preservation program, a move that would cost the county an estimated $300,000 a year, although that figure fluctuates.

McLaughlin, while acknowledging pressure from the state, has also said the changes arose from her department's review that revealed building density in the RC district is roughly the same as it in the area zoned rural residential (RR), where the county has hoped to concentrate most development in the west.

She has consistently said she was willing to modify the proposals, but the effort to seek a compromise gained momentum this month after the proposed zoning was widely criticized by the public during a marathon meeting at Glenelg High School.

Proponents are reluctant to back away completely because they also believe there is support for the changes.

"There's an interesting dynamic at play," said Councilman Ken Ulman. "I hear from a lot of people ... who want the pace of growth slowed. But I don't see them getting involved."

Another factor underscores how far apart the sides are. It is a familiar question: When is government bound by its word?

Twice this year county officials settled, at least temporarily, the debate over expansion of Maple Lawn, Maryland, the luxury, planned, mixed-use community in Fulton, by embracing the concept that their commitments must be honored.

Further, County Executive James N. Robey has said he would not support "down zoning"- imposing tighter density controls - in the west, and the county's general plan, the basic blueprint on how and where development will occur, does not advocate changing zoning in that region.

Even political rivals Christopher J. Merdon and Guy Guzzone, both councilmen, acknowledge a key consideration in the dispute is whether the county should backtrack on its word.

"That's the question," said Democrat Guzzone, council chairman and a potential county executive candidate. "The only thing is, are there other factors that might force us to?"

There is no ambiguity with Merdon, a Republican who has announced his candidacy for county executive: "The county did make a commitment to the people. ... I can't think of any reason to change the zoning."

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