Plans for Columbia are moving forward

Judge's ruling considered moot as county prepares for charrette gathering

September 14, 2005|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

A Howard County Circuit Court judge's ruling affirming the Zoning Board's denial of the Rouse Co.'s petition to increase Columbia's density is essentially moot 20 months after the two bodies were at odds over developing the planned community's downtown.

Since the board's denial -- when it and the community asked Rouse for more specific details about the 1,600 residences that were proposed to create an urban atmosphere for Columbia's Town Center -- General Growth Properties, which bought the Rouse Co. last fall, has created a draft master development plan for the downtown area.

"At this point, I think it's pretty much academic," Dennis W. Miller, General Growth's general manager for Columbia, said of the appeal. "All the things the community and the Zoning Board were seeking, we started providing."

Miller said the company is not planning to further appeal the judge's ruling.

General Growth unveiled in May a draft plan that would turn Columbia's downtown into a bustling urban core connected with roads and walkways and would add shops, homes and a hotel adjacent to Merriweather Post Pavilion.

And the county is preparing for an intensive design gathering, called a charrette, that will result in a master development plan for Columbia's downtown.

In upholding the Zoning Board's January 2004 denial of the development company's request, Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. ruled the board's decision was "supported by substantial evidence and legally correct."

County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat who headed the Zoning Board at the time of the denial, said he is pleased that Kane ruled in favor of the board, and he believes the decision reinforces the local zoning authority's power to deny density increases.

Ulman said he now thinks "we moved past the adversarial days into a time of cooperation."

"I'm hopeful that property owners and the community will work together in a renewed sense of cooperation toward this upcoming charrette," he added, "and we will hopefully agree on a mutually beneficial vision for Columbia's Town Center."

In the developer's petition, the company did not offer specific details of what the residential urban environment would look like. When the board issued its decision, members spoke about a desire for a more detailed development plan.

The company claimed that the board's denial was "arbitrary and capricious," as well as inconsistent with a "longstanding interpretation" of the New Town regulations, which govern Columbia, according to the decision.

However, Kane noted in his Sept. 7 decision that for the first time the board was asked to approve a "substantial density increase, without any binding information as to the amount, general location and relationship of land-use designations in the area covered.

"Its decision was not arbitrary. It was fairly debatable and legally correct."

At the charrette, scheduled for Oct. 15 to 22, residents will be invited to share ideas about how Columbia's downtown should be transformed into an active urban environment.

The meetings will focus on the 570 acres that make up Town Center's core -- including The Mall in Columbia and the 51.7-acre, crescent-shaped property near Merriweather Post Pavilion -- and will address issues such as mixed uses, walkability, the balance between pedestrians and cars, diverse and affordable housing and the environment.

Mary Pivar of Columbia, one of the many residents who protested the company's plan, said she believes Kane's decision will allow residents to have a larger voice at the charrette.

"It gives residents the validity to express far more inclusive, vibrant visions for the crescent [property] to produce a truly singular city," she said, "instead of another ordinary, prosaic residential-focused development."

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