The patch of green on Montgomery Road across from the Long Gate Shopping Center in Ellicott City stands out amid the asphalt, stores and homes.
Behind a few small wood-frame houses and garages, these nearly eight acres could almost be a suburban park, with a few trees and a small playground next to Bethel Baptist Church.
It's not a park, though, and it's not public property. What it will become remains to be seen.
Its future has been argued previously and will apparently be argued again in the months to come as county planners and members of the County Council redraw the county's zoning map, last revised on a wide scale in 2004 and 2005.
Landowners have filed 133 requests for new zoning on property ranging from less than an acre up to about 90 acres, with most under five acres. Still to come are proposals from the county Department of Planning and Zoning and the Planning Board, both for changes to specific properties and the rules that apply to many properties
The effort is part of the next steps in carrying out PlanHoward 2030, the master plan for growth adopted last year. After hearings by the Planning Board and the County Council, the council is expected to take final votes on zoning changes by July.
As expected, the applications include one from the owners of the 66 acres in Cooksville that was once home to the Woodmont Academy, who plan to sell the land to an organization in Prince George's County that wants to build an Islamic center with a school and mosque.
Area residents at first reacted against the plan as it was described in the organization's newspaper, but Minhaj Hasan, a board member of the group, says plans are being scaled back in response to local comments.
The zoning request for that tract would make certain the property could continue to be used for an "institutional" purpose.
Also included among requests is one to allow a psychiatric treatment center on 58 acres in Ellicott City to be turned into multifamily housing, and a proposal to allow more intense development on 88 acres of rural land in Clarksville where the county has decided to extend water and sewer service.
There's a proposal to remove land from the original "New Town" Columbia zoning, a potentially significant precedent that planning director Marsha S. McLaughlin said is not likely to be supported by her agency.
That eight-acre piece divided among six parcels on Montgomery Road is hardly among the largest properties in the mix, but community activist Grace Kubofcik, who lives near it, said "this was a major, major fight last time."
She's referring to years of neighborhood opposition to commercial development there that ended in 2004, when the County Council sided with residents and voted to allow the land to be used for homes. The council — which also serves as Howard's zoning board, makes final decisions on rezoning
That vote seemed to settle it, but now Triangle Montgomery Associates LLC, which owns most of the land, wants to reopen the discussion. Triangle's application says a portion of the land has an approved plan for townhouses, which it calls "the most productive use of the property under current zoning."
But the company says that won't best serve the area, and so Triangle is seeking to develop the property with restaurants and a pharmacy that would "meet the demands of the community. The development would provide a high class amenity area and community gathering place, and it would utilize the natural features of the site in an environmentally friendly manner," the application says.
Kubofcik said she and many of the residents have a different idea about what would best serve their needs.
"Commercial development, by its very nature, brings me more traffic than any other type of zoning," said Kubofcik, adding that rush-hour traffic is usually backed up along Montgomery to the intersection of U.S. 29.
She's also wondering about the potential traffic impact of changes to the Taylor Residential Treatment Center, a psychiatric hospital affiliated with the Sheppard Pratt Health System at College Avenue and New Cut Road, about a mile from where she lives.
The owners are asking for zoning that would allow up to 15 apartments or condominium units per acre on 19 of the 58 acres.
The zoning on that land now allows senior housing — which could produce more units per acre — and office parks. Joseph Rutter, of Land Design and Development in Ellicott City, representing the owners, said the change being requested would have less impact on the surrounding area than an office park, though he said specific details of the apartment proposal — including number of units, numbers of buildings and whether they would be rental units or condominiums — are not yet final.
If the Montgomery Road proposal could reopen an old fight between the community and developer, another request shows agreement between two previous antagonists, said Joan Lancos, a Planning Board member and activist who works for Hickory Ridge Village in Columbia and describes herself as a "land-use junkie."
Lancos said she was pleased to see that a developer who owns land next to the village center is abiding by the 2011 community plan that she helped create.
The plan recommended that land next to the village center would best be used for some mix of apartments and condominiums, offices or perhaps an "institutional use," such as a nursing home. The request from Mangione Family Enterprises of Turf Valley Limited Partnership for 4.5 acres at Freetown Road would allow those uses. The zoning now allows town homes, an outcome that followed a fight over the developer's proposal to put a Walgreen's drug store there.
"The community was up in arms," said Lancos, recalling that many feared a commercial use there could draw business away from the village center.
Lancos and others are upset about a proposal from the owner of some 21 acres on the east side of Snowden River Parkway in Columbia to leave the "New Town" zoning that covers all 14,000 acres of Columbia.
Bridget Mugane, of East Columbia, a past president of the Howard County Citizens Association, wonders what would happen to Columbia if you removed one of the key "organizing principles on which it's based."
The proposal from the Realty Associates Fund VI, LP, based in Boston, is for a mix of offices, stores and homes, but it doesn't seem destined to get far. McLaughlin said discussion of changes in New Town zoning — now as old as Columbia and going on 46 years— would have to happen separately, as recommended in PlanHoward 2030.
"We would not be likely to support an 'opt out' of New Town at this point," she said. "It will take a lot of discussion. We have 100,000 people living there. It will be a long conversation."
Need for change
Some property owners say they need zoning changes in light of PlanHoward 2030, either to fulfill its goals or respond to information compiled in the plan.
For instance, several owners along U.S. 1, or Washington Boulevard, say they need new zoning to fulfill the plan's goal of revitalizing that 11-mile stretch on the east side, home to about a third of the county's jobs.
Of 26 applications along Washington Boulevard — more than for any other single road — 19 are asking to change from the current "corridor employment" zone, according to the most current information provided by the county's planning department. A marketing consultant who contributed to PlanHoward 2030 recommended eliminating that zone, saying it may not help the area compete for business in the future.
The plan itself recommends the county reconsider that zone and two others in hopes of allowing greater "flexibility" in commercial use along U.S. 1.
McLaughlin said some zoning requirements do not give owners on parts of Washington Boulevard enough leeway to respond to market demands. For instance, the requirements for the ratio of retail space in residential buildings, she said, don't reflect demand for store space.
Also, she said, conditions are not the same along the whole Howard County stretch of U.S. 1, from Elkridge to Savage to Jessup to Laurel, and the rules are not always reflecting that.
One challenge of land-use planning is always keeping up with market changes and consumer interests.
One proposal for a piece of land a bit larger than 10 acres on Washington Boulevard just north of Route 32 cites both PlanHoward and the marketing study in asking to switch from "corridor employment" to a combination of "corridor activity center" and "continuing light industrial."
Taken together, the new designation would allow continued use of warehouse and light industrial buildings on that tract — which in previous plans had been set aside for walkable districts with a mix of apartments, stores and offices.
That applicant, Cross Roads Park Limited Partnership, argues that the land "is an ideal location to realize the recommendations of the [marketing] study and PlanHoward 2030."