Council set to present 1st bill

New member plans measure to ease development meetings

December 27, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

A meeting in an empty field on a cold winter's night to learn what a developer plans to build there isn't what many Howard County residents consider convenient.

Yet developers say such scenarios are a direct result of county government laws that require the meetings and restrict times and locations for the sessions that are intended to give residents what they demand - more information in a timely and convenient way.

"The perception on the part of the public is that they're [developers] doing it to be difficult," said County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, who conceived a bill for introduction next week designed to ease the situation.

Her bill, co-sponsored by council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, and Councilman Greg Fox, a western county Republican, represents the first measure from one of the four first-time council members elected in November.

The bill would give developers more flexibility in finding locations for "pre-submission meetings," which are intended to inform nearby residents what might be built near them before formal plans are submitted to the county.

Watson's bill would allow the meetings to be held within a five-mile radius of a proposed building site instead of the current three-mile limit, giving builders working in rural areas a better chance to find a meeting room. It would also allow meetings in alternate locations with written permission from the county Department of Planning and Zoning.

"I think it's a good idea," said Angela Beltram, a community leader and development critic who is a former council member. Several developers said they also like the bill's concept, as did Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director.

"The original idea was to allow small meetings at someone's house about a three-house project, or have a Saturday meeting outside on a nice day," McLaughlin said. "No one anticipated nighttime meetings outside. We assumed people would use good sense."

She said schools, senior centers and libraries are often booked far in advance, but suggested that developers look for rooms in churches or synagogues.

After complaints that developers were scheduling the meetings on weekday afternoons when many residents couldn't attend, the council passed the current law.

The law requires that meetings be held between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, at a "location within the community, preferably in a public or institutional building, located within approximately three miles of the subject property." Watson's bill would also remove the word "preferably" from the law.

Developer Donald R. Ruewer said those rules led him in November to hire a large charter bus outfitted for small meetings for his required gathering in Lisbon, where he hopes to build a five-building, 20-condominium project. He could find no other public meeting space near the rural western county site.

An evening meeting planned on a lot along Frederick Road this month to reveal plans for the hotly contested Centennial Gardens moderate-income housing project was shifted to the County Council chambers at the last minute. That was done to accommodate nearly 400 angry residents opposed to construction of 59 subsidized apartments in a midrise building on a 2.5-acre lot in their west Ellicott City community.

Jared Spahn, the builder for Centennial Gardens, said he has no financial stake in the project and is acting as a contractor for the Howard County Housing Commission, which owns the land and is trying to encourage more affordable housing.

"People need to remember that before this law there were no pre-submission community meetings," Spahn said.

Now people complain the meetings aren't convenient enough.

"I'm not sure there's ever a perfect situation," he said, noting ruefully that "I'm the guy who got yelled at for hours."

Still, Spahn and Ruewer said they think Watson's bill could help.

Ruewer said the county ought to sponsor and run the meetings instead of making developers do it.

"It's a giant pain in the butt," he said, because he has no idea how many people might attend any given meeting, nor does he know what buildings are available.

"They ought to have two government locations, one for the west and one for the east," he said.

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