A bill that would establish floating zoning regulations to develop tracts of land in heavily developed eastern Howard County has drawn the ire of local community activists and small business advocates who say the floating zones will give developers the ability to construct buildings with few ways for the community to oppose them.
The bill, which comes before the Council on Monday night, has led to a protracted debate in an online community forum that includes the zoning director, Marsha McLaughlin, defending the bill against a barrage of questions from community members.
As currently written, the bill allows developers to petition for a floating zone which would only be approved on land over two acres that has water and sewer service, access to a major road, is not within a neighborhood of single-family homes and is “sensitive” to existing land uses in the area nearby.
Critics say the criterion is too broad for residents nearby a proposed development in a floating zone to oppose it.
“I have never seen a Zoning Bill so fraught with dangers (no limits on density, heights or minimum setbacks) with no procedural safeguards,” wrote Russ Swatek, the moderator of the Howard-Citizen listserv, “and once an individual CEF [Community Enhancement Floating District] is approved by the Zoning Board the residents have absolutely no grounds to protest.”
The bill includes 21 uses excluded in floating zones, including kennels, funeral homes and adult live entertainment establishments; but besides those specified excluded uses, it would largely be up to the Zoning Board to decide if the development meets the criteria.
The bill includes a requirement that the Zoning Board hold a public hearing on any floating zone before approving one, but there is no requirement that residents’ concerns be taken into account if the development meets the criterion.
“There is no provision that says we are going to listen to the input of the public,” said Brian England, owner of British American Auto Care and a member of the Howard County Independent Business Association. “We need more than a pre-submission hearing that addresses the immediate concerns of the people and is enforceable.”
McLaughlin wrote on the Howard-Citizen listserv that leaving out density, height requirements, setbacks and variances due to the fact that the eastern part of the county, where this zoning regulation would be used, is already “quite developed.”
“The intent is to allow property owners to present an innovative development proposal that responds to surrounding neighborhood and market conditions,” wrote McLaughlin. She pointed to the seven criterion and four purposes that have to be met by a developer as safeguards to ensure new developments will fit into surrounding areas.
In response to critics on the Howard-Citizen listserv, McLauglin offered a few examples of buildings that could be constructed in a floating zone:
- Aging in place options – development for elderly people at the edge of a neighborhood.
- Mixed-income redevelopment of older subsidized apartments – repurposing subsidized apartments with higher amenities to attract mixed-income residents.
In addition, wrote McLaughlin, residents who oppose a CEF approved by the Zoning Board would be able to appeal the decision in court.
“Please remember that all you need to appeal is STANDING,” wrote school board member Allen Dyer in response. “That should mean one and possibly two citizens could appeal. For the rest of the county – TOUGH LUCK.”
England noted that standing is difficult to achieve in a zoning case. He said he was unable to get standing in a recent case regarding a new automotive facility being zoned on Snowden River Parkway near his business, despite the building being zoned in the same development as his business.
In order to get standing in zoning decisions in Maryland a person must be “more grievously affected” than the other people in the area, according to England.
What do you think could be added to this bill to improve it?