Wineries vote delayed a month by Howard County Council

Hilltop and other housing issues addressed

April 07, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Anyone thirsting for a Howard County winery tour will have to wait at least one more month to begin planning.

Legislation to allow wineries in Howard County was tabled Monday night by the Howard County Council, the second consecutive year that the Ulman administration legislation has run into trouble.

Council members who asked for the delay said more time is needed to iron out unresolved issues over relatively small preserved parcels of land in residential areas. Some worry they could attract too many people and too much traffic if used for wineries.

"Preservation parcels in cluster subdivisions" — land kept as open space when new homes were clustered in one section of a development — caused the delay, said Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican. If the council can isolate those specific parcels in the law and regulate them separately, restrictions could perhaps be relaxed on other sites, especially preserved agricultural land. Last year, votes were postponed several times until County Executive Ken Ulman withdrew the legislation for more work.

Winery legislation will likely come up for a vote in May, several members said. That is also when the council is scheduled to vote on a bill introduced Monday night that would allow speed cameras in school zones. The public hearing for that is April 20.

The council also tabled two other bills. One would allow a T-Mobile cell tower on land in West Friendship owned by Trent Kittleman, last year's Republican nominee for county executive. Fox, who represents the area, said a better, less visible site on the Kittleman family farm has been identified and a new visibility test using a weather balloon is scheduled April 30.

The other measure would allow a near-doubling of the number of apartments at Ashbury Courts, a 148-unit mixed-use project in the median of U.S. Route 1 near the entrance to Laurel Park racetrack, while relaxing zoning regulations that require more retail space. The proposed change could affect other, similarly zoned land. Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a Democrat who represents North Laurel, said the community needed more time to discuss it.

The council did approve transferring $1.7 million from contingency funds to help pay for snow removal, transferred ownership of the county's Hilltop Housing complex in Ellicott City to the Housing Commission to pave the way for a $50 million redevelopment, and changed laws governing the county's affordable housing program.

The Hilltop project includes promises to nearby residents that would provide extra landscaping and a fence. The project would protect nearby homes from the glare of lights and potential damage from dynamiting of rocks, said Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat. Overall, the project envisions the staged demolition of the current 94-public housing units, the Roger Carter recreation center and a 60-unit apartment complex nearby. They would be replaced with a new 278-unit complex and recreation center that would mix subsidized renters with unsubsidized tenants.

"This is absolutely the way to go," Watson said before voting. "This will have a very positive effect."

The changes to the county's Moderate Income Housing Unit program, which requires builders to provide a small percentage of lower-priced, affordable housing, are designed to deal with what Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, called "a very challenging housing market."

Home prices for units not in the county program have dipped near or, in some cases, below the formula-driven price for moderate income units. Buyers are avoiding the county program homes. Under the law, if they remain unsold for 120 days, they can revert to the developer, meaning they are lost to the program, even if home prices later escalate. To prevent that loss, housing officials offered three alternatives to builders in the law approved Monday night.

Under the new law, builders could opt to buy, renovate and resell foreclosed homes, offer fewer reduced-price new homes to families with somewhat lower incomes, or, if nothing else works, pay the commission at least 7.5 percent of the home price in cash to be used for other housing programs.

The winery issue has proved a troublesome one for Ulman, mainly because of objections from people who live in rural areas who are worried about weekend crowds at wineries.

Winery advocates have said they are an attractive option that can provide farm owners a new way to earn a living. They argued that the proposed law is too restrictive, while some residents say it's too liberal in allowing up to 500 people to attend special events at large wineries up to 15 times a year.

"There are so many restrictions, it may discourage people from starting wineries," Dave Zuchero, operator of Tin Lizzie Wine Works in Highland, testified at the council's public hearing in March. Tin Lizzie teaches people how to make wine, but it is not a winery.

Brenda Stewart of Daisy, in contrast, said the county "is turning something beautiful into a commercial business" in residential areas. Ted Mariani, a critic of the bill who attended Monday night's meeting, said he was pleased at the delay.

"I think they need more time to work on it, to fine-tune it," he said.

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