Sunday, January 10, 2016

Howard County Zoning Director Meets Community in North Laurel (Dec. 2015)

Howard County's new Director of the Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ) Valdis Lazdins was the primary speaker at the December 1, 2015 open forum of the Southern Howard County Civic Association (SHCCA) in North Laurel, MD.

Howard County's DPZ has a very large effect on many of the quality of life issues in our area, to include the potential redevelopment of Route 1.

They manage the zoning regulations in Howard County, and review developer proposals for their impact upon schools, the environment and congestion (traffic).

DPZ's Approach to Development in Howard County

Mr. Lazdins spoke about his philosophy for the zoning process and his belief that engagement with the community was essential for successful outcomes.

He stated that any community will always be going through a constant state of change, and that there are three components to creating great design that is a good fit for Howard County:
  1. Preserve: Identify the the things that the community values, and that you want to write zoning regulations to keep
  2. Enhance: This is more difficult, as you have to define what it means -- housing? streets? sidewalks?
  3. Transform: The toughest part, especially if an area hasn't hit bottom yet where it has become clear to everyone that radical change is needed
Mr. Lazdins cited his broad and diverse background, including in the public sector (Chief of Special Projects for Montgomery County, and City Planner for Grand Rapids, MI) and as a partner in a professional planning firm (with other partners from the Rouse Company in Howard County) where he worked on projects across the country, to include the 3-year effort to replace the Woodrow Wilson Bridge outside of DC.

After listening to several residents express their concerns, he stated that it was clear to him that the Route 1 Corridor needs more attention in the 2016 DPZ work plan presently being put together.

Assessment of the DC-MD-VA Region

While in Montgomery County he conducted studies of the regional economy for DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia, focusing on "what makes the region tick," and he derived several conclusions from this effort:
  1. Employment in the region has evolved. There is a great need for office space but job growth and income has been relatively flat compared to the 1990's and early 2000's.
  2. This region is more about "redevelopment" than "greenfield development," as for the most part Howard County and the DC area has already been developed.
    1. In Howard County, there is plenty of land but it would be expensive to build out infrastructure such as utilities and roads.
    2. In the eastern part of the County the road infrastructure exists, though utilities would need to be improved for new development.
  3. Mr. Lazdins and some of the audience members disagreed about the nature of development needed in Howard County and particularly along Route 1. 
    1. He said that the County has become so expensive that cheaper, smaller condos and rentals are the largest unmet need, but one resident (a realtor) asserted that there are too many apartments and townhomes being developed, and that her clients are all trying to exit the apartments.
    2. Part of the dispute seems to be in the quality of the apartment communities. Mr. Lazdins was impressed when touring some of the new complexes, while the realtor seemed to be focused on troubled older locations.
  4. Mr. Lazdins asserted that for areas similar to Route 1, the only part of retail that is growing is Internet sales while physical bricks-and-mortar sales are flat, except for "Big Retail."
DPZ Tools

Paradoxically, the fact that Maryland is in relatively good shape makes a comprehensive development plan more difficult.

Mr. Lazdins said that in areas that are "flat on their back(s)" the local governments have aggressive incentives to promote redevelopment, such as the greenfield tax credits in Michigan that encourage the assembly of small pieces of property into something large enough to develop.

For example, he worked on a renaissance zone targeting Detroit that provided relief from property taxes for 13 years, with residents not paying state or local income tax as well.

However, most of Maryland is not at that point, which actually makes it more difficult to spur redevelopment. For example, along Route 1 there are a lot of older businesses that may not be ideal, but which create steady monthly income. This creates little incentive to tear everything down and take a risk on some vision of the future.


Howard County, like many communities with good schools, is a desirable place to live -- which leads to potential issues with traffic and crowding in schools.

Howard County established a cap on new development through the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO), and is unique in only allowing a certain number of residential permits per year. A developer must have housing allocations in order to build.

The County has established a citizen-led committee to examine APFO for the first time in decades, which is reconsidering what are good and reasonable thresholds for traffic and school capacity for requiring developers to improve infrastructure (or pay into a County fund).

But one important caveat is that the courts have said that the County can only hold back development for 4 years on this basis. If the developer has housing allocations, it can proceed after that point even if it hasn't been able to come to agreement with the community on how to address the shortfalls.
Another volatile question is redistricting. No one wants their children to be on a bus for 30-45 minutes in each direction, but Western Howard County has plenty of school capacity.

Traffic Issues

There was considerable discussion with residents along Whiskey Bottom Road and Baltimore Avenue about increased traffic and vehicles trying to cut through their communities to MD-216 and I-95.

This appears to be both a long-term and short-term issue. The broader issues will need to be a partnership between Howard County, Prince George's County, the State of Maryland, and the Federal Government (due to the presence of Fort Meade).

In the short term, the Howard County officials in attendance were taking notes and will bring the issues back to the appropriate departments, particularly the concerns about congestion, lack of traffic calming on some roads such as stop signs and traffic humps, and the limited ways to get from Route 1 to I-95.

Mr. Lazdins was also asked if it is a conflict of interest that the developers produce the traffic congestion reports, given their financial stake in the results. 

He stated that he felt this was the only practical solution because DPZ cannot possibly have enough staff to conduct the traffic studies itself, nor can they know the projects as well as the developers. However, DPZ has decided to tighten up its oversight process and perform a closer review with crosschecks and more field visits, using its environmental experts, civil engineers, and research specialists.

Ultimately, however, they are really relying upon the graduates of universities who stamp and seal the studies. DPZ's role is to validate and certify the studies.

Traffic studies, though, are only done at the time of development. Mr. Lazdins was asked, if after the fact there is a greater impact on traffic, what recourse does the community have?

He said that they have been putting a greater focus on requiring things like sidewalks to get pedestrians safely out of the road when development occurs, but the problem is on the perimeters and gaps. (Sidewalks can only be required if they lead to some destination, but the regulations can require them to be extended 250 feet past the property.)

In cases where infrastructure proves inadequate, the County may need to fill the gaps. However, it may take a while for it to be budgeted. If that wait is too long, a community may need to create some kind of self-help program.


Some development issue that were also briefly addressed included:
  • Laurel Park: Since the meeting with Mr. Kittleman in November, Laurel and Howard County have agreed on the importance of having both the Laurel and Laurel Park MARC stations, and have sent a letter to the State of Maryland asking to keep both.
  • Route 1 Jurisdiction: Route 1 is controlled by the State of Maryland, and local roads tie into it. Ultimately the State and the County need to develop a partnership. Addressing these issues will be very expensive, and it will need to be determined who will pay what portions (State, County, or developer).
  • Route 1 Zoning: Is the zoning for Route 1 correct? 
    • Some of the issues include the percentage of retail required in new projects, and how to change the mix from convenience stores and nail studios to a higher end mix. Making a zoning change would require a text change.
    • Mr. Lazdins said that one issue is that Route 1 is a high-speed roadway, but retail spaces are designed for slow-paced small-town environments with short blocks and slow traffic. He feels that mixed use is necessary.

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