10-year zoning change offered

Democrats' hope to give citizens greater voice in land use

June 07, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

Proposal would alter rezoning procedure Three County Council Democrats yesterday announced a plan to change the way Howard County does comprehensive zoning.

Instead of the council considering land use changes countywide once each decade, the plan would have planners divide the land into large sections, giving citizens more opportunity to be involved in changes proposed in their area.

Ken Ulman, Guy Guzzone and Calvin Ball said their plan also would provide for possible mediation of neighborhood zoning disputes, require larger notification signs and more convenient informational meetings about proposed land use changes.

"In April of last year, both Guy and I drafted a document that basically laid this out," Ulman said. "We thought to do the entire county once every 10 years was not practical anymore and didn't give the community the voice needed."

Examining a smaller area would give planners and citizens a better chance to incorporate infrastructure plans into whatever changes are proposed, Ulman said.

County planning director Marsha S. McLaughlin said "the goal makes sense," though "there's a lot of logistics involved" and staffing is a big issue. "I need to think it through," she said.

Mediation of zoning disputes "is an interesting idea," she said, though it's unclear if mediators for land use issues can be easily found.

McLaughlin agreed changes need to be made in comprehensive rezoning. "It was too long and too complex, and people got worn out at the end," she said.

Guzzone said his proposals pre-date the current dispute over the Comp Lite re-zoning bill slated to appear on November's ballot after residents angry about a church rezoning in the bill petitioned it to referendum.

"This isn't about Comp Lite," Guzzone said, adding that he was publicly discussing changes to the process before the controversial bill came up.

The proposed changes are to be introduced as legislation next month, the three said. With a majority of the five-member council as sponsors, it most likely will be passed.

All three men are running for election this year - Ulman for county executive, Guzzone for state delegate, and Ball for the District 2 County Council seat.

Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican also running for county executive, said the Democrats' initiative is all about Comp Lite and election-year politics.

"I'm glad they are finally acknowledging the mistakes they made during comprehensive rezoning. Here they are in an election year trying to make up for their mistakes," he said.

"To me this just smacks of a cover-up in an election year," Merdon said.

Merdon said he hadn't seen the Democrats' proposals and couldn't offer a specific opinion on them.

Ulman denied Merdon's charge, saying a political motive could be ascribed to virtually anything that happens in an election year. "I would point out that we've been looking at this issue for a year now," Ulman said.

Merdon said that if Ulman and Guzzone hadn't tried to rezone a St. John's Lane church property for a planned expansion instead of allowing it to go through the normal conditional use process, "the Comp Lite bill wouldn't be on the ballot today."

Merdon was the only council member to vote against that bill, which rezoned about 40 properties, many of them along U.S. 40 in his district.

Angela Beltram, a former council member who led the referendum drive, also was skeptical of the new proposals.

"Small planning areas are great, but that's an executive decision. Does one of them want to be executive?" she asked, referring to Ulman.

Mediation isn't necessary, she said, unless the zoning board, whose members are also county council members, already has decided to change zoning.

"My position is, just don't grant the rezoning unless there's a change or a mistake," which are the legal requirements for a decision to change land uses. "I don't trust them to do anything," Beltram said.

Others thought the ideas are good for the county.

"I can see where dividing the county into sections would be very efficient," said Katherine Taylor, a lawyer who is representing community groups fighting proposals for commercial rezoning on land at routes 100 and 103.

"I think that mediation can be a good idea," she added, noting, however, that in hotly contested cases parties often simply can't agree.

Howard Weinstein, a past president of the Pembroke Homeowners Association, which is one of Taylor's clients, called the proposals "an improvement."

"It sounds like they've realized that comprehensive rezoning in its current state doesn't work anymore," he said.

"I think they need to make it a charrette-type process like they did in Columbia," he said, noting that Ulman has said that could be a model for other planning efforts.

James R. Schulte, president of Security Development, a major county developer, also liked the ideas.

"I think it makes a lot of sense," he said about dividing the county into smaller planning areas. However, he said mediation may not be as necessary because developers already consult with residents.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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