The plan to cluster hundreds of new homes in the northeast corner of historic Doughoregan Manor and preserve the rest of the estate took a big step forward Monday night when the County Council unanimously approved the extension of public water and sewer to the property.
The next step is a county Zoning Board hearing May 12, when the board - composed of the five council members - will consider a zoning change for the land.
The Ellicott City estate is the only home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence still in family hands, and the descendants of Charles Carroll have shown a determination for nearly 300 years to preserve their family home and keep the public away.
They plan to use the millions of dollars they would garner from the development and for putting 500 acres in the county's Agricultural Preservation Program to restore the mansion and several dozen outbuildings, keeping the property in family hands for generations to come. If their plan fails, the likely alternative would be large homes with wells and septic systems built throughout the property.
Howard planners and county public works and school officials have supported the Carrolls' concept.
"The expansion request, in my opinion, meets the General Plan criteria," said County Council Chairwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who represents the area in which Doughoregan is situated.
The extension of utilities was an amendment to the county's General Plan.
The council vote Monday night came after adoption of a raft of amendments that sought to address neighbors' concerns about sewage, increased traffic and crowded schools.
"It's important to at least continue the conversation," said County Councilman Calvin Ball, an East Columbia Democrat.
Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, said the amendments he helped craft were key to gaining his support for the measure. The changes sought to guarantee that the deal will be laid out in a Developers Rights and Responsibilities Agreement, which is to be negotiated between the county and the Carroll family by January.
"Without the DRRA, this will all revert back," Fox said.
Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a West Columbia Democrat, said the key for her was permanent preservation of hundreds of acres of farmland.
"Once we grow houses on it, it will never grow food," she said.
The approval of water and sewer service for 221 acres in Doughoregan's northeast corner is vital to the Carroll family's plans to develop 325 detached homes there while preserving the rest of the 892-acre estate. A 34-acre portion of the development site would be given to Howard County government to expand Kiwanis-Wallas Park.
Area residents have mounted a vociferous protest, complaining that plans to treat wastewater on the site and increasing traffic congestion will be major problems if the project is approved.
Watson said she is also worried about sewage treatment, but said it is unfair to burden the Carrolls with treating and reusing wastewater when other large developers aren't being asked to do that.
"I have a lot of concerns about sewage and won't support a sewage treatment plant" on the estate, Watson said, noting that the Carrolls' current plans would produce less than half the sewage of the original plan to build 2,000 apartments for an Erickson retirement village.
Erickson abandoned the idea during the recession.
Watson said the county should develop a more systemic approach to reusing wastewater to keep nutrients out of tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay, though the Carrolls should pay for "any impact" their project has on the county's only wastewater treatment plant in Savage.
Joseph Rutter, the Carrolls' representative at the meeting, said he was pleased with the outcome of the vote.
"Obviously, it's positive that the General Plan Amendment was approved," he said. "They appeared to embrace all the concepts in the [Carrolls'] master plan."
Serious talks on the Developers Rights and Responsibilities Agreement should begin within a week, Rutter said.
After the vote, several area residents said the amendments helped, but did not eliminate their concerns.
"I still think it went too fast," said Harry Carnes. "There are still a lot of concerns."
"I think it was a foregone conclusion that they were going to approve it," said Victor A. Illenda, president of the Chateau Ridge Lake Community Association. "But I'm glad to hear they are trying to protect some of our interests."
The changes to the bill hold the Carrolls to the promises they've made to preserve their farmland, spend on restoration, keep the density of new homes at promised levels, and "evaluate alternatives" for treating or reusing wastewater to keep nutrients out of the county's plant on the Little Patuxent River. It gives the family 215 days from the day the bill becomes law to craft a Developers Rights and Responsibilities Agreement with the county. That takes the process to January, since bills take effect 60 days after they are approved by the council and signed by the county executive.
"We want to give this process time and not make it so rushed," Watson said.