Howard County released its draft “HoCo By Design” general plan update for public review and comment in December.

Although that process is just getting started, community advocates have begun to express concerns that the draft plan doesn’t go far or deep enough, and should include a greater focus on school planning.

The current planning process began in 2020 with the adoption of plan guidelines and creation of a Planning Advisory Committee, and included nearly 100 community meetings, as well as 28 focus groups with diverse audiences.

The draft plan builds on the county’s current general plan, PlanHoward 2030, advancing policies through a four-pronged approach that seeks to make the update more equitable, predictable, sustainable, and fiscally balanced.

“For the first time we have made a deliberate choice to anchor our vision for growth and development in equity,” said Office of Human Rights and Equity Administrator Yolanda F. Sonnier. “By bringing the planning process to traditionally unheard communities, HoCo By Design has created a diverse and inclusive plan for all who call Howard County home.”

The draft plan highlights key findings from 15 focus groups conducted in collaboration with 18 community-based organizations, broken down into five planning themes: Ecological Health, County in Motion, Economic Prosperity, Dynamic Neighborhoods, and Quality by Design.

What’s in the plan?

The draft general plan proposes goals of protecting the natural environment, strengthening economic opportunities, expanding transportation options, promoting diverse housing choices, prioritizing community character, and balancing growth and conservation.

Recommendations include expanding forest cover and stream buffers; providing measures for climate change mitigation and adaptation; supporting workforce housing opportunities through future mixed-use, walkable activity centers; investing in transportation, education and other community resources and enhancing public transit services and connections; addressing “missing middle” housing — small- to medium-sized homes at different price points — and generally improving affordable housing stock; outlining intended land use for areas throughout the county; focusing new growth into redevelopment areas; and pacing growth to allow for the development of essential infrastructure.

Some policies promoted in the draft include initiatives to promote agriculture as a career choice, along with grants for beginning farmers, a financing program to help farmers purchase land, leasing county-owned land to startup agriculture businesses, and a loan or share program for farm equipment. 

Policies relating to schools include the exploration of public-private partnership models to address near-term school facility acquisition, construction and renovation; co-location of school facilities with other public amenities; considering a trust fund for school site acquisition; adaptive reuse of commercial real estate for school buildings or administrative office space; and integrating public pre-K into government and commercial centers for the convenience of working parents.

“I am proud of the record levels of engagement reflected in the draft, and we will continue to refine the plan’s contents over the next few months,” said DPZ Director Amy Gowan.

Advocates react

Among the advocacy organizations that have started to weigh in on the draft plan is the Howard County Citizens Association and the Progressive Democrats of Howard County.

Public schools are addressed within the plan, but Hiruy Hadgu, a board member of the HCCA and president of the Progressive Democrats, said both organizations feel that schools should have a dedicated draft chapter within the plan, particularly because education spending represents the lion’s share of the annual budget.

Progressive Democrats, a grassroots organization focused on zoning and land use and the accountability and transparency of county government, recently launched a petition asking the County Executive to require this as a separate draft chapter.

“Our petition has received support from key community leaders as well as an elected official because they feel so strongly about it,” Hadgu said.

Other concerns raised by members of the HCCA include the prioritization of increased residential growth and school system crowding.

“Without ensuring infrastructure is fully sound for future growth I cannot support the draft,” said HCCA President Stu Kohn. “Infrastructure is not only schools and roads. It should include the hospital, utilities, police, fire, EMS, and storm water.”

“There is not enough detail given to having different regional issues have different criteria” in regard to upcoming zoning changes, added HCCA Director Lisa Markovitz. “Having

certain new land uses done ‘by right’ is problematic as that doesn’t require any hearing or custom viewpoints of the parcels, which is a problem when some neighborhoods have more egress/ingress or storm water issues than others.”

The draft plan and accompanying background documents are available for public review on the project website, Residents are encouraged to provide feedback via the online comment form on the website through Jan. 16, 2023.