Zoning discussion hits obstacle

Citizens committee refuses to embrace changes proposed for western county

October 14, 2005|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

After months of passionate and often tempestuous debate, it's back to square one as officials wrestle with the future landscape of western Howard County.

What began as a political issue might have to be settled politically, at least temporarily, many say, after a citizens committee's refusal to embrace zoning changes designed to preserve more land and further curb development in the west.

Officials said they haven't decided on their next move, but several people close to the issue said County Executive James N. Robey must take the lead in finding a solution that satisfies state officials, who have been pressing for the curbs, while not ignoring the committee.

"The administration is the one that raised the issue, so the administration needs to say what its position is," said Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican County Council member from District 1 who is campaigning for the county's top elected office.

"The county executive needs to take a position. ... They need to come forward and tell us what their plans are for agriculture preservation," Merdon said.

Robey said that although the committee didn't formally endorse specific actions, its work was valuable. "They never reached a consensus, but something comes out of it," he said.

Robey said he is uncertain if legislation will be proposed to deal with the matter. He said he has not discussed the issue with Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning.

The issue dominated much of the summer after McLaughlin announced in July a series of proposed zoning changes to preserve more farmland.

McLaughlin was responding largely to the state, which has criticized the extent of development in the west and threatened not to recertify the county's participation in the Maryland agriculture preservation program.

But a review by her department also revealed that development on property zoned for rural conservation (RC) - the heart of the county's preservation efforts - has resulted in roughly the same density, or housing units per acre, as in areas where growth is preferred.

McLaughlin's proposals, though, were greeted with broad opposition, particularly from large property holders in the west and the development industry. She appointed the 19-member citizens committee in hopes of finding a compromise, but the panel never warmed to the idea of confronting the problem with piecemeal changes.

Two of the biggest stumbling blocks were safeguarding land values and opposition to prohibiting owners of properties of 50 acres or more with RC zoning from acquiring building rights, as is permitted now.

Although no votes were taken during five meetings, the committee's consensus was that current zoning in the west should remain unchanged, and that the county should pay significantly more to preserve land and shield it from development by purchasing density, or building rights, from property owners in the west.

It suggested a broader examination of preservation programs and said that any changes in policies should be part of the county's comprehensive zoning process, which was last completed in 2000 and is normally conducted at 10-year intervals.

The result puts the county back to where it was before zoning changes were proposed three months ago: facing state pressure to preserve more land in the west and public opposition to measures that would immediately achieve that goal.

The outcome this week of the committee's work pleased few.

Even the harshest critics of the proposed zoning changes were not cheering.

"I wouldn't say that I am happy," said Martha Clark, whose family farms hundreds of acres in the west and who was a member on the committee. "I'm satisfied that they didn't just make a bunch of zoning changes."

Randy Nixon, another opponent of the changes sought, said: "I don't think I would have been pleased with any result. It was unsatisfying. I sensed Marsha's frustration with the result. That makes her job harder, and I feel badly about that.

"The consensus was that the solution to this was not a zoning issue."

The panel suggested that the county examine during comprehensive zoning the idea of enhancing preservation efforts in the west by requiring developments in other areas of the county to purchase density rights.

Those areas could include U.S. 1, where county revitalization efforts are under way, and Columbia.

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