Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Howard County Performing Comprehensive Review of Zoning Regulations

Howard County Department of Planning & Zoning (DPZ) sponsored a very informative session on the comprehensive review of Zoning Regulations on Wed. Mar. 29 at North Laurel Community Center (NLCC).

There will be a year-long process of public engagement and feedback sessions, plus written input will be welcomed.

More information (and eventually a feedback submission link) will be at:

• In Phase 1, zoning documents will be examined over the next year with the intent to recommend ways to:

- simplify the code,
- make it easier to read and understand, and
- make sure it has the right tools to either preserve the existing character of zones (e.g., the rural west) or help a zone achieve its intended goal, as defined in Howard County plans approved by the Council.

• In Phase 2, the regulations would be rewritten.

• Specific to our area, a Route 1 planning study will also be done at the end of the year running concurrent with the zoning regulations review.


1. HoCo will conduct a new Route 1 study to plan revitalization in late 2017 or early 2018. 

Some residents expressed concern that multiple studies have been conducted since 2000 without progress, but DPZ Director Val Lazdins said the difference is this study will also create an implementation plan instead of simply express goals.

The study was slated to start last summer but was derailed by the all-out effort to rebuild Ellicott City and ensure that it is safe against future flooding.

2. The review of Howard County Zoning Regulations (the first in 40 years) will be conducted by Denver-based Clarion Associates.

Clarion only works for local communities and does not represent developers. They have helped over 100 communities in the US and Canada rewrite their codes, including:

- City of Philadelphia
- Prince Georges County (in progress)
- Norfolk, VA
- Portsmouth, VA
- Daytona Beach, FL

Clarion's Don Elliott said the firm was attracted to this project by the unique character of Howard County, centered around a community planned by the legendary Jim Rouse.

HoCo has at least three distinct areas: an urbanized center, transportation corridors, and a rural area.

3. In Phase 1 over the next year, HoCo's Zoning Regulations and documents such as adopted County Plans will be reviewed and community feedback solicited via public forums, written input, and web site submissions.

Clarion will create drafts for public comment.

4. Clarion's role is not to revisit adopted plans, but rather to ensure that Howard County has the right tools to make them work, and to provide advice on what works and what doesn't work based upon their experience with other communities.

The goal is to create zoning regulations that are easy to understand and flexible enough to accommodate needs years into the future.

5. Other items from an extended Q&A Session:

a. Concerns:

• A resident expressed concern that there needs to be coordination between Columbia's covenants and HoCo regulations.

• Residents of the Route 1 Corridor expressed frustration that promises of the delivery of walkable communities with amenities (including a long-promised swimming pool at NLCC) in exchange for higher density were not kept, with the increased density straining services, schools, and traffic.

One resident believes that businesses along Route 1 have failed to invest in upgrades because of lack of certainty in the zoning (an unrealized expectation that zoning would be changed to allow them to put in higher-value businesses).

A resident also stated that the County should treat different communities by consistent rules.

Residents of the MD-216 corridor have issues with exploding growth, traffic, and noise.

• Several residents expressed concern over flooding and watershed management, including the loss of Type 2 (drinkable) water sources, and the need to have legally enforceable regulations.

b. Responses

• Many of the growth issues can be addressed with a combination of tools, including both zoning and the APFO regulation which is also being reviewed by HoCo at this time.

Environmental concerns were also heard from other groups and will be looked at, as well as issues such as parking. Their experience is that communities value sustainable practices, even during the last recession.

• They believe the right way to approach new growth is not to ration it, but rather to create clear standards for the maintenance of existing properties, so old areas don't go into decline.

• An initial impression of the zoning regulations is that they don't have a coherent structure, and look more like a series of one-off exceptions.

In general, zoning can't create markets and usually is exclusionary (dictates what is NOT allowed).

With that said, Clarion has already been asked to specifically look at Route 1 because it isn't working.

A first impression is Route 1 suffers from "proscriptive" regulations that attempt to mandate solutions.

One example is the requirement for ground floor retail in every building, which in Clarion's experience won't work - there simply isn't enough retail to spread all along Route 1 and they will simply steal each other's businesses. (This is a not uncommon mistake in zoning regulations.)

An alternative might be to select key locations and cluster mixed-use high-value retail, residential, and office space.

Ideas such as this can be examined in the concurrent Route 1 planning study.

• Otherwise, there appears to be a lot of room to rationalize the Howard County code.

- It appears to have far too many criteria. If you have 25 criteria, some are almost guaranteed to be in conflict with each other. The key is to focus the criteria for a given zone to achieve the intended purpose.

- There doesn't appear to be an internal structure. It appears to have just grown over time with piecemeal individual exceptions.

- Most codes now include a chapter covering maintenance, and they can ensure that the criteria for what must be maintained are very clear, as are the steps that must be taken.

- With that said, while the code will apply to the whole County, the goal of zoning districts is to create a desired result for a given area.

Most modern codes also have a character protection overlay to specifically preserve areas the community wants to protect.

- It's not Clarion's job to decide what that result should be, but to give communities the tools to achieve them, and provide advice based on their experience on what they believe does and doesn't work.

They can simplify the zoning categories to ensure that there isn't duplication or confusion, but ultimately the community will decide how to apply them.

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