A new attempt to allow wineries in Howard County and changes to the county's moderate-income housing law headline the County Council's agenda for March, even as members continue to struggle to pass new sign regulations for Columbia's redeveloped downtown.
The wineries bill is a second effort by the Ulman administration to craft zoning that would allow the businesses in Howard. The housing measure is an attempt to respond to a depressed market that has some new residential units selling for about the same price as so-called moderate-income units the county requires builders to provide.
The council held a third work session Monday evening — this one lasting 41/2 hours — to try to prepare for a possible vote on the new sign code March 7. But after months of discussion and behind-the-scenes work on the issue, members still appear uncertain what to do, especially on electronic signs.
"How we approach this is what we have to figure out," Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said as the council discussed how much discretion to give the county Planning Board on electronic signs.
"We're trying to leave some latitude for this technology, which is evolving very rapidly, and create some excitement," said Marsha McLaughlin, the county planning director.
The original bill merely said that electronic signs "are allowed," but council members were unhappy with that and are now considering a five-page list of limits on electronic signs that Deputy County Solicitor Paul Johnson said is "the toughest set of criteria for anything" that he has seen.
Council members could not even agree on what to call electronic signs. A legal definition that labeled them "video boards" was rejected by members, who want a more accurate, broader term. Watson said the word "video" suggests motion. Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican who participated via telephone, suggested "electronic sign board." Another idea was "electronic message center."
The proposed amendment would prohibit signs that might pose a safety hazard and limit the concentration of signs to avoid "a blighting influence." The rules would require signs to serve the public, rather than simply advertise products, and would bar "frenetic" changes of content.
McLaughlin said the proposed regulations would restrict electronic signs to 150 square feet, require that they change messages no more than once every two minutes, and limit brightness and hours of use. In unusual circumstances, the county Planning Board could waive the rules.
Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a West Columbia Democrat, wondered whether a two-minute message rotation might bother pedestrians or people eating at outdoor cafes. "People sitting on a sidewalk eating would see a change 30 times in an hour," she said.
"There is a great deal of follow-up work we all have over the next several days," Council Chairman Calvin Ball said in closing the meeting just before 9 p.m.
The wineries bill revisits legislation that County Executive Ken Ulman failed to push through last spring. His original bill was withdrawn in September.
Ulman wanted zoning rules that would allow wineries in Howard, noting that the county is host of the Wine in the Woods Festival each May and that none of the wine sold is produced in the county. Wineries are not allowed under current law.
Some farmers who want to establish wineries as another way to use agriculturally preserved land said the legislation would have helped the county's economy.
But last year's bill ran into trouble with rural residents, who said it would have allowed up to 500 people to gather at larger wineries up to 15 times per year.
Under the current proposal, wineries on five to10 acres could have up to 20 guests at a time, and 50 could visit wineries on 10 to 25 acres, the same standards as in the previous bill, according to Jessica Feldmark, a top Ulman aide. The new bill would limit crowds to 150 people on wineries over 25 acres and to a maximum of 500 at larger ones. The measure also adds restrictions on how late wineries can stay open on weekends and on those located on narrow residential roads.
The housing bill is an attempt to respond to pricing problems caused by the depressed housing market, said Thomas Carbo, the county's deputy housing director. Howard County requires builders of most new residential projects to include a small percentage of lower-priced units for families of moderate income. A family of four, for example, qualifies with an annual income up to $81,522.
But with the prices of new, market-rate condominiums and townhouses now lower, the formula-driven county price for a Moderate Income Housing Unit is near or sometimes higher than the market price, Carbo said.
"I don't think anybody anticipated this downturn in the market," Carbo said, noting that Elkridge Crossing, Cherry Tree Park senior condominiums and the proposed Howard Square townhouse project on U.S. 1 in Jessup might all be examples of the problem.
The proposed changes to the county's moderate-income housing law would kick in when the moderate-income price is 90 percent or more of the retail market price. The bill would provide three ways for builders to satisfy the requirement to provide moderate-income units. They could choose to buy, rehabilitate and resell a vacant, foreclosed home in an older neighborhood, build one-third of their required moderate-income units for low-income buyers, or pay a cash fee to the county.
Carbo acknowledged that the changes could result in some new developments having less of an income mix but said rehabbing foreclosed homes would prevent blight and mix lower-income buyers in those neighborhoods.
The winery measure and the housing bill are expected to be introduced Monday, with a public hearing March 21 and a vote April 4.