Wineries, housing issues split Howard County residents

Council public hearing goes late

March 24, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

A series of divisive land-use issues brought dozens of Howard County residents out to a County Council public hearing Monday that lasted until midnight.

Issues included a renewed proposal by County Executive Ken Ulman to allow wineries in Howard County and a bill that would nearly double the number of apartments at a recently built North Laurel complex struggling to prosper in the recession.

Proposals to revamp rules for the county's moderate-income housing program and a resolution needed to clear the way for a $50 million redevelopment of the county's Hilltop public housing complex in Ellicott City also drew interest. Additionally, the council is being asked to approve the transfer of $1.7 million in contingency money to cover the cost of snow removal last winter. Votes are scheduled for April 4, though some issues could be tabled for more discussion.

Even the Hilltop housing resolution, which would approve the transfer in county government ownership of the complex and the nearby Roger Carter recreation center to the county's Housing Commission, received some criticism and suggestions for changes, though most people at the hearing strongly favored the concept. The commission will oversee the $50 million project.

"It's a tremendous concept, but very complex," testified Bill Withers, who lives close to the recreation center on Fels Lane. The plan is to demolish the 1960s housing and a nearby apartment complex the county also owns and replace it with more units available to both low- and high-income renters. A new, larger recreation center in a new location would replace the current one.

Bita Dayhoff, director of the county's anti-poverty Community Action Agency, urged passage of the resolution because the redevelopment of Hilltop will "deconcentrate poverty," boost the community's schools' and property values generally, and would create a more attractive and better maintained community. Housing officials want unsubsidized renters because they would provide money for ongoing maintenance and repairs.

The wineries bill represents a second attempt by the Ulman administration to provide a legal way for farmers to establish wineries in Howard County. The original bill introduced last spring was withdrawn after western county residents complained that the bill would allow too many people on rural roads and farms for winery events.

The new proposal adds several restrictions to hours of operation and on the use of narrow residential roads, but would still allow up to 500 people to gather on a limited basis for special events at wineries of over 25 acres.

That drew familiar complaints from several western county residents, including Theodore Mariani of Woodbine, a leader of Concerned Citizens for Western Howard County, who said, "Many of our concerns have not been addressed." Allowing up to 500 people would be "devastating to nearby communities," he said.

In contrast, Kevin Atticks, a spokesman for the Maryland Wineries Association, said Howard's proposed law, if approved "would be the most restrictive winery allowance in the state" and the only law to place a numerical limit on the number of visitors to a winery. Michael Cook, of North Laurel, said he's given up trying to establish a winery in Howard and is searching for land in Carroll County instead.

"You're missing the boat," he warned the council members.

A different zoning proposal intended to aid developers of Ashbury Court, a 148-unit apartment house with first floor retail spaces built in the median of U.S. 1 near the entrance to Laurel Park racetrack raised different issues. The owners want a zoning change, designed to apply only to their property, to allow another 140 apartments on a parking lot next to the current building, but not require more retail space, since only 20 percent of the current store spaces are leased.

Sang Oh, attorney for the project, argued that a special zone created to encourage mixed apartment/retail projects for U.S. 1 revitalization projects like Ashbury Courts isn't working. The apartments are renting fine, he said, but not the retail space. "If it fails financially, we have a major problem," he said.

Critics like Cathy Hudson of Elkridge said "these are huge changes" with potential unintended consequences that should be considered in a larger context, not in a vacuum for one project. "I only see a 100 percent increase in density," said Howard Johnson, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association. Mary Rekus, who lives near the former mobile home park, said the community was caught by surprise and wants more time to consider the issue. County Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a Democrat who represents the area, agreed and said she'd like to table it for a month.

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