Looking to village centers' future

March 01, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

A zoning bill that would change the way Columbia's village centers may be redeveloped should be ready for County Council introduction in April, though the county Planning Board still must vote on it.

That vote is tentatively scheduled for March 12, after a third board work session last week on the issue that produced no formal decision. Board members spent most of the meeting, which lasted more than three hours, debating minor word changes in the measure, though all agree on the concept - to allow property owners in Columbia's village centers the right to propose zoning changes. Since 1965, only the old Rouse Co. or General Growth Properties, its successor, has had that power.

"I think we're all in agreement that the village centers do need to redevelop," said board member Tammy Citaramanis. "They're handicapped."

County planners have said the zoning bill would set up a process for allowing change, while specific construction plans at the eight village centers affected would undergo a later, independent review.

But the struggle underlying the debate is how to balance property owners' rights against the desire of village residents to control what is or is not built.

Driving the debate is Kimco Realty's plan to demolish the half-empty Wilde Lake Village Center, Columbia's oldest, and replace it with 500 apartments and 50,000 square feet of convenience retail stores without replacing the supermarket that closed there in 2006.

Kimco officials argue that with the advent of big-box retailing, a somewhat-secluded village center such as Wilde Lake is not viable as a commercial hub and that no supermarket will move to the site of the former Giant Food that closed in 2006. But village residents want a grocery store and fewer residential units.

The zoning regulation change at issue would include several ways to ensure community participation and opportunities for comment. But residents want more power to influence development decisions, not just a chance to speak out.

The bill would require property owners to notify residents of their plans and conduct two community meetings at least 30 days apart before submitting a plan to the county. Other features include requiring more details of a proposed project earlier in the process than normal, plus a community response statement.

It also requires a statement from the property owner describing how the project would impact the village center and how it would mesh with surrounding areas, describes how a village center is defined, and tries to safeguard center features and public spaces.

Once the process is adopted by the council, proposals for specific centers would go to the county Zoning Board.

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