The Howard County Department of Planning & Zoning (DPZ) released its preliminary draft of PlanHoward 2030, the county’s general plan update, on March 20.
Following a series of open houses to introduce the plan to the public and solicit feedback, the Howard County Planning Board held a public hearing on the draft plan April 18.
“I’m very excited to present this draft plan to our residents,” said County Executive Ken Ulman. “DPZ staff has worked diligently to incorporate the guidance provided by the General Plan Task Force and to draft a plan that will help ensure Howard County’s continued success for the next two decades.”
According to DPZ Director Marsha McLaughlin, PlanHoward 2030 contains 12 chapters grouped into five sections, each highlighting a corresponding state vision that helps frame the context of the chapter’s content. Other elements of each chapter include a brief description of the county’s progress toward goals identified in the General Plan 2000, as well as proposed policies with implementing actions.
Bill Mackey, chief of community and comprehensive planning for the DPZ, presented an overview of the draft general plan to the planning board at the start of the April public hearing.
The first section, he said, contains introductory material and lays the foundation for the core elements of the plan, while the three primary sections focus on the three pillars of sustainability: environment, economy and community. The final two sections focus on implementation and stewardship, and include actions that the county can take toward achieving the plan’s goals.
Although the plan addresses Howard County planning needs, some of the guidance for that process will be driven by state legislation enacted in Annapolis, particularly in terms of development.
During this year’s legislative session the Maryland General Assembly passed the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012, which delineates a four-tiered system for development and land preservation. Those tiers roughly equate to planned service areas, municipalities, and two areas not planned for water and sewer service that are categorized as either dominated or not dominated by agricultural or forest land.
In terms of transportation, the plan proposes maintaining or expanding Howard Transit by maximizing efficiencies, coordinating with other jurisdictions and increasing funding, Mackey said.
The plan also proposes sustainable budgeting with policies to strengthen the Capital Improvement Master Plan.
“Under the housing chapter … the plan encourages balancing where we live and where we work by increasing public awareness of how the combined costs of housing and transportation affect affordability, traffic patterns, resource consumption and pollution,” Mackey said. “There is a big education component.”
It also recommends updating land regulation to respond to policies in the plan, changing market conditions, and to improve efficiency of the review process.
Unlike previous plans, Mackey said that PlanHoward 2030 proposes a mid-cycle review of the plan, as well as annual indicators for tracking that would match indicators the state is asking counties to provide.
Additionally, it outlines a need for collaboration and participation by county government, local businesses, nonprofit organizations and individuals.
During the public hearing, citizens generally approved of the plan, but voiced some very specific concerns about its content.
“Previous plans have included sections on arts and culture, but this one doesn’t,” said Coleen West, executive director of the Howard County Arts Council. West submitted a draft section on the arts for consideration and offered to assist with any work needed to include it.
Sharon Tahir, whose family owns and operates a 7-Eleven store in North Laurel, expressed a concern that the plan might not do enough to discourage redundant development, particularly along the Route 1 Corridor. “We need to develop that basis for surrounding residents to use more services,” she said. “I’d like to know we’re not just going to develop something because nothing else has been put forward [in] a specific area.”
Likewise, Paul Revelle of Fulton, speaking on behalf of the 25-member Howard County Independent Business Association, said some members of that organization fear parts of the plan could threaten their livelihood.
“[They] believe the general plan too eagerly embraces the latest marketing strategy of lifestyle centers and believe that they threaten the village centers,” he said. “The association is concerned that provisions in the plan would lead us away from newer forms of retail and back to the old strip development retail centers that were part of the problem when Columbia first started.”
Returning to the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act, Walter Carson of Woodbine spoke on behalf of the Concerned Citizens of Western Howard County advocacy group and questioned the erosion of local autonomy that counties are experiencing at the hand of state-imposed strictures.
“We must be wary of a heavy-handed state that overreaches its jurisdiction and imposes its will on what should be the decision-making process of the citizens of this county,” Carson said.
By way of example, the Tier 4 requirement that limits subdivision to seven houses (regardless of site size) would, in effect, create a 43-acre zoning on a subdivided 300-acre farm.
“By our calculations, that’s one-tenth of what is currently permitted in Howard County,” he said. “Our concern is, what is the impact of such a regulation on the farmers who live in our community and own the land?”
Grace Kubofcik, who served on the General Plan Task Force, advised that the General Plan currently contains no fiscal analysis. “The staff has been very good to tell me they hope to have it by May,” she said.
Kubofcik also took exception to including policy on the allocation of grant funding for community service and nonprofit organizations in the plan.
“That is, quite honestly, an executive decision done by each administration, and I don’t think we should be having that as an element of the general plan,” she said.
As to review requirements, Kubofcik suggested that annual monitoring might be overly ambitious and that the county would be better served to consider two reports in a 10-year cycle, on a cycle of every four years.
“Look closely at youth comments,” she said. “There are 20 in the plan; I hope there were more and I want you to get the rest of them, because they are the future residents of this county.”
The planning board has scheduled a work session on the draft general plan for 7 p.m. on May 3, after which it is expected to make recommendations prior to submittal to the Howard County Council for adoption.