Howard Co. Council approves new sign rules for Columbia

Vote allows specific plans to advance

March 09, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Columbia's unusual relationship with signs entered a new era last week with the Howard County Council's approval of new sign and design rules for downtown Columbia's rebirth, opening the way for the first tangible projects in the long-discussed remake of the town center area.

"There are many of us living close to downtown Columbia who would like to see some activity after six years of discussion," said Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat who represents the center of the 43-year-old planned town.

Passage of these new rules, Sigaty said, would allow the Columbia Association to move forward with plans for creating a more welcoming park in Symphony Woods — likely the first construction in the 30-year redevelopment that could bring up to 5,500 new residences and about 6 million square feet of stores, offices, hotels, cultural amenities and environmental improvements. It is unclear when construction will begin, though late next year is a possibility, officials said.

"We're very excited about seeing something happen," said county Planning Director Marsha McLaughlin, who watched the voting.

On Monday, the council also approved creation of the Office of Transportation to improve consideration of transit issues, accepted the members of a commission to re-examine the county charter and created a redistricting commission, which will recommend changes to council boundaries based on last spring's census results.

The new sign rules were introduced in December, and the council held four long work sessions to discuss the minute details of everything from tall building signs to illumination standards for electric signs. The five members tried to balance the clash between Columbia's traditional aversion to large or highly visible signs, which makes the town hard to navigate, and the need to help people trying to find their way around.

"It's impossible to get a perfect sign code," said Councilwoman Jennifer Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, but the council worked long hours to craft something that would "enhance our community rather than overwhelm it."

The council unanimously approved 18 amendments, plus numerous amendments to the amendments, including creation of the term "digital displays" rather than "video boards," which was the original name for electronic signs. The rules regulate the size, placement, illumination, timing and virtually every other aspect of a sign. The bill uses terms like "harmonic urban streetscape" to describe a plan that would make signs "an integral part of an overall development plan."

While many residents and visitors feel the lack of signs has made locating places in Columbia far too difficult, others feel the restrictions have preserved a more pleasant appearance.

Howard Hughes Corp., Columbia's master developer, wants the freedom to be innovative with a rapidly changing electronic technology, while residents and some council members fear the visual clutter they've seen for years along U.S. 40 and U.S. 1 reaching into Columbia.

The Town Center Village Board, the homeowners' group that covers the downtown area, wrote to the council that while the board opposed having video boards in downtown in testimony delivered Dec. 20, its members now believe proposed amendments make the idea "more egregious."

"Ironically, new videos that are particularly attractive could be the worst distracters" for pedestrians as well as motorists, the board's letter said.

But council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, said the members spent "an inordinate amount of hours" on the bill. "It is in much, much better shape than when it came to us," he said.

The electronic signs drew the most comment and criticism from the public, and several members praised the five pages of specific amendments controlling digital displays as compared with the original bill, which merely said that video boards are allowed in downtown.

"This five pages of criteria is the result of all of us spending more hours than we would like admit" working on it, said Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat. She offered amendments banning inflated signs in downtown, especially the "flappy guy"-style signs such as the one waving at motorists Saturday in front of the Firestone store on Little Patuxent Parkway.

Sigaty said the council listened to residents who wanted strong controls and approved a "fairly stringent process for determining if a movable digital display will be allowed in downtown Columbia." The county Planning Board would make most decisions, as it has regarding Columbia for decades.

In addition, new legislation introduced Monday night included bills to allow wineries in county zoning law and changes to the moderate-income housing program, and to transfer $1.7 million from the contingency fund to pay for snow removal. Those bills will be the subject of a public hearing March 21, and a vote on April 4.

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