Feedback to help polish council's zoning reforms

Public has concerns about mediation


Democrats on the Howard County Council plan revisions to their package of four zoning reform bills after hearing a barrage of criticism -- and some praise -- at this week's public hearing on the measures.

"We're going to take the feedback and make them better," said east Columbia Democrat Calvin Ball, who, with Councilmen Guy Guzzone and Ken Ulman, will work on amendments to the bills before the July 31 voting session.

Added Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat: "We'll work through potential changes."

The bills would allow voluntary mediation in Zoning Board cases and would require county technical reports two weeks before Planning Board hearings, bigger notification signs on affected properties and more convenient community information meetings about new projects.

Grace Kubofcik, co-president of the county branch of the League of Women Voters, said at Monday's hearing that the county's complex zoning process is difficult for citizens to follow.

"You have to be a [zoning] guru or slightly crazy. I'm slightly crazy," she said to laughter.

The idea of using voluntary mediation in Zoning Board cases took the most fire from a baker's dozen speakers, and Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, suggested changing that bill.

After Kirsten Saxe of the Ellicott City Residents Association noted that zoning changes require a legal finding from the Zoning Board of a change in the neighborhood or a mistake in earlier zoning, she testified that "this is not an issue for mediation."

Guzzone appeared to agree, saying, "Yes, I think you make a good point. It didn't seem to make sense to mediate a change or mistake."

He suggested instead that the Zoning Board, which is made up of council members, separate the decision about whether a zoning change is legally justified from what comes later -- a decision about which new zone is appropriate.

"Vote on change or mistake first," he said, and then consider mediation over what the proper new zone or development plan should be.

David W. Keelan, a candidate for Republican State Central Committee, said the mediation idea "is a step in the right direction" but not enough.

"It looks good, feels good, but seems to lack substance," Keelan said.

Bridget Mugane, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, said, "I commend the council for introducing these four bills," before launching a long list of suggested changes. Her group likes the idea of mediation, but not in Zoning Board cases, she said. "One cannot mediate facts."

The bills took criticism from both sides of the development spectrum -- residents opposed to development and a landowner who is trying to develop her property.

Nancy Cavey, whose farm was divided by Route 100, wants to develop an office park on a 27-acre remnant on the south side of the highway at Route 103, but she has been stymied by nearby residents.

"I don't think neighboring communities should be able to control our land," she said. After going through the process several times, she found that "neighbors demanded more and more. By the end, they were all land planners. Where are the landowner's rights?" she asked the council.

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a western county Republican, agreed.

"Zoning on your property is an abuse of government and government powers," he said, adding that landowners "are afraid to hold on to property" for fear of new restrictions on its use.

John Adolphsen, a sharp critic of the Maple Lawn mixed-use project now rising in what he termed "beautiful downtown Fulton," said the bills are "all basically cosmetic in nature." The changes could have been done administratively without council bills, he said.

But Stuart Kohn of Scaggsville, another longtime Maple Lawn critic, praised the Democrats for trying to improve a poor zoning process.

"To say this is a political stunt is simply not true," he said, thanking Ulman, Guzzone and Ball for not waiting to attempt changes.

Despite a blizzard of criticism, Feaga remained optimistic.

"We must be doing something right," he mused at one point, noting that the Ellicott City-Columbia area recently was listed No. 4 on Money magazine's "Best Places to Live in America."

"I personally think we've done zoning pretty well."

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