Altering Town Centers

Public Hearings Will Be Scheduled On A Plan For Zoning Changes

May 31, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Columbia resumes its journey into the future Monday night, when a bill changing the way the 42-year old town's village centers may be redeveloped is formally introduced to the Howard County Council.

Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat whose district includes the ailing Wilde Lake Village Center that sparked the issue, said the council will schedule as many public hearings as it takes to hear from everyone who wants to voice an opinion, starting with the regular monthly hearing June 15. Additional hearings will be scheduled as needed after the first one, and a final vote could be delayed a month and voted on at the end of July before the council's annual August recess, Sigaty said.

Normally, the council uses a one-month process, holding one public hearing per month on all legislation before it. A final vote is routinely taken 30 days after introduction.

"We're going to put on hearings as needed," Sigaty said. "We're committed to hearing from everyone who wants to offer their counsel on it." Sigaty's district also includes Hickory Ridge, Harper's Choice and River Hill village centers. There are eight centers owned by three separate companies regulated by the county's New Town Zoning, created in the mid-1960s expressly for Columbia.

Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat whose district includes village centers at Oakland Mills and Long Reach, agreed with Sigaty.

"I think that's a good course of action," he said, noting that since the issue has been before the public for months, there's been time for residents to absorb it.

Several community leaders are unhappy, however.

Philip W. Kirsch, chairman of the Columbia Association board and the Wilde Lake representative, said he wants more time for village boards and the CA to prepare testimony.

"Village boards only meet once a month," he said, and the CA board plans to hold a special meeting on the issue.

Alex Hekimian, Oakland Mills' CA board member, said, "This is a big deal. An enormous deal. I'm feeling rushed."

Cynthia Coyle, who represents Harper's Choice on the CA board, said that although she's happy the council will hear from everyone, she feels the issue should be stopped and revisited, especially since the county planning board made no recommendation.

Sigaty and Ball disagreed.

"It's just fair we take it up and look at it in a timely fashion," Sigaty said.

The bill represents a blend of ideas from petitioner Kimco Realty, county planners and revisions from the planning board.

County officials say the measure would establish a process - a regulatory framework - that would allow owners of the various centers to apply for zoning changes required only for major changes in the centers, several of which have suffered as big-box retail centers in east Columbia have drawn away business.

Once a process for allowing things like the introduction of residential or office buildings at the retail centers is adopted, the owner of each one could ask for changes that would be individually evaluated by the county and community residents. Minor redevelopment that only involves rearranging retail businesses would not need a zoning change.

Kimco prompted the issue by proposing to demolish the half-empty Wilde Lake Center, Columbia's oldest, and build 500 apartments and 50,000 square feet of retail space.

Local residents strongly oppose that plan, though most agree that the center's owners should have the power to at least ask for major zoning changes.

Currently, only Columbia's master developer, General Growth Properties, can apply for major redevelopment of the centers - a relic of the planned town's origins when the Rouse Co. owned all of them. Rouse sold the centers in 2000 before being taken over by General Growth four years later.

"It's going to depend on the amount of work council members feel they have to do and the number of people who want to speak," Sigaty said about the schedule.

In a way, the village center issue previews the much larger struggle to come over GGP's plan for a huge remake of the town center in Columbia. That three-decade plan is before the county planning board and will come to the council late this year.

Again, all sides agree a change is needed, but disagree on the process and scope for achieving it.

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