Columbia center proposal delayed

Action postponed until at least Feb.

new council will make the decision


The current County Council will not rule on a development plan that aims to turn downtown Columbia into a bustling urban environment with additional shops and homes.

Responding to resident criticism that the development plan is rushed and lacks detail, the county has postponed taking it to the council for approval until February at the earliest, when the group will have five new members after the November elections.

County planners originally had wanted the council, which will have final approval, to hear the plan during the summer.

"We heard a lot of people ... [requesting] more opportunities for thought and public input," said Bill Mackey, the county's planning supervisor. "So, we're responding to that."

A new schedule sets out two options. In one scenario, the Planning Board would hear the plan in early October, and the council would vote on it in February. The second option has the Planning Board hearing the proposal in early February, with the council ruling on it in June.

The 23-member community focus group that the county gathered to give feedback on the plan is scheduled to meet May 3, when it could finalize a new schedule.

With the extra time, Mackey said, the focus group will continue to meet and discuss issues - including zoning amendments, transportation improvements and the possibility of a creating an architectural review board.

The county has commissioned a traffic study by the Orlando, Fla., firm Glatting Jackson, which the county wants completed before the Planning Board hears the proposal.

The draft master plan was created after the county sponsored a weeklong community charrette in October during which residents brainstormed what they wanted Town Center to look like within 30 years.

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.

Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat who helped spearhead the charrette, said his only concern about delaying the plan is losing "positive momentum," but he said it is important to take the time to engage the community to come up with the right plan.

"If there are still issues to work through, my hope is all the parties continue to work through them until we have a plan that really satisfies the vision that emerged in the community-based process," he said. "And if it takes a little longer, well, it's a 30-year plan, and I think we're going to keep working until we get the right plan."

Mary Pivar, a member of the focus group, called the delay a positive first step by allowing people to brainstorm more creative ideas for developing the area. However, she said it remains unclear what will happen under a new County Council and county executive.

"All of what happens with the draft master plan for downtown Columbia will depend on what kind of a city [the new council] wishes for and how much representation and validity they give to residents' concerns and values," said Pivar, a member of the Wilde Lake Village Board.

Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon said there needs to be more analysis of the impact the extra residents will have on the roads and schools, and he said the future council will be in a better position to make the final decision on the plan.

"They will lead the charge for the next four years on its implementation," he said, "so they should have a say on the zoning rules."

Jud Malone, a member of the focus group, said the process needs to have time to allow the creation of a plan that reflects the community's desires.

"I feel good that we're going through the process," said Malone, who represents Town Center on the Columbia Association board of directors. "We're not doing it perfectly, but the fact that we're trying to do it and trying to include the public is a good thing, and the longer we stay at it the better we get at it."

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