Criticism delays Columbia draft plan


Responding to public criticism that a planned makeover of Columbia's downtown is being rushed through the approval process, the county is delaying taking it to the Planning Board.

This marks the second time the county has postponed sending the draft plan to the Planning Board, which was first scheduled to hear the proposal last month and then in April.

County planners had aimed to present the proposal to the County Council, which will have final approval, in June or July.

But some residents have been critical of the plan to turn Columbia Town Center into a bustling urban environment, claiming that it does not address basic infrastructure questions, such as how roads and schools are going to be built or updated, if necessary. At a hearing last month, many critics urged the county to slow the process.

"I think people had a lot of important things to say, and the reason we're asking them is so that we can include those into the considerations and respond to them," said Bill Mackey, the county's planning supervisor. "The public process is working as it ought to."

Mackey said the county is scheduled to meet with the 23-member community focus group, which the county put together to give feedback, on April 5 to talk about a new timeline.

"We're looking at expanding the process, to include more focus group meetings and more public input before going to planing board," Mackey said.

The county also has commissioned a traffic study by the Orlando, Fla., firm Glatting Jackson.

Mackey said the county wants a traffic study to be completed before the Planning Board hears the proposal.

The study will look at the traffic effects of the new development on existing roads and what improvements will be necessary.

Mackey also said the county is waiting for the firm to give an estimate of when the study will be completed. He added that a new timeline, once created, will be posted on the county's Web site,

The 30-year draft master plan came out of the county-sponsored charrette in October in which residents generated ideas to turn Town Center into a pedestrian-friendly urban environment with new homes and businesses.

The plan lays the groundwork for 3,500 to 5,000 more homes; turning Symphony Woods into a kind of Central Park; and improved public transportation and pedestrian walkways intended to generate more foot traffic among businesses and homes.

Mary Pivar, a Columbia resident and a member of the focus group, was pleased the county has delayed the timeline. She has criticized the plan, claiming it could lead to overdevelopment and traffic congestion.

"I think that what [the county is] realizing is the political reality of this - that it's a huge, huge, project, it's lacking some of the details and some of the values that residents had stated," Pivar said. She added that the county now recognizes "that going ahead without some of the information required to satisfy those residents' values was politically foolish."

Another focus group member, Bridget Mugane of Columbia, said that while the county has done a "commendable job" in creating the plan, it has not had the time to examine the infrastructure needs. She said a traffic study needs to be completed to see what development is feasible.

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