This concept illustration from HoCo By Design suggests a way that village centers could be redeveloped for a mix of uses, using Owen Brown Village Center for the hypothetical illustration. The plan anticipates that future growth in Howard County will rely more heavily on redevelopment. (HoCo By Design illustration)

HoCo By Design, the General Plan update that will guide Howard County’s growth and development for the next two decades, entered into effect in October 2023.

While the new plan sets a slower pace for growth compared to the past 20 years, many of the challenges it seeks to address have gone virtually unchanged for at least as many years.

As the new plan enters the implementation phase, members of the County Council and advocates for smart growth and a more equitable housing spectrum don’t consider their work done by a long shot, particularly in terms of the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.

“We’re not against growth,” stressed Stu Kohn, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, a community advocacy organization. “Our biggest concern is that the infrastructure to support it needs to be in place or at least planned.”

It remains to be seen if the new plan is any better than the county’s previous three plans, he said.

“What bothers us is that although the (plan process) consisted of 100 public meetings and approximately 12,000 public comments, the public could not comment in a public form on any of the 132 amendments submitted by the County Council,” Kohn said. “Moreover, the Planning Board reviewed the draft General Plan and only recommended one amendment.”

Overview

HoCo By Design differs from previous plans by focusing growth into activity centers, anticipating that future growth will rely more heavily on redevelopment. It identifies Columbia Gateway as one of the county’s last large potential growth centers.

The plan proposes a variety of walkable mixed-use hubs, enhanced commercial centers, and the retention of industrial land, all while promoting a housing strategy that keeps pace with new employment opportunities.

The Plan also incorporates a Route 1 Corridor Plan that features a future civic district in South Elkridge and aims to maintain the corridor’s industrial and manufacturing base while bringing new commercial, light industrial and residential development to strategic locations.

Mary Kendall, deputy director of the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning, shared highlights from the plan at a Howard County League of Women Voters information session in late November.

Affordability issue

Affordable housing is a perennial issue, and Kendall said DPZ’s desire is to increase the number of units to a minimum of 20% for new multi-family construction, above and beyond current regulation requirements.

“We’ll have to convene a work group to evaluate and determine how we’re going to” do that, she said.

In particular, the General Plan’s designers wanted to focus on a full spectrum of affordable housing opportunities and make some of the county’s “missing middle” housing types and accessory dwelling units more attainable.

Affordable housing advocates consider that goal unrealistic without strong policy and stronger enforcement.

“A more equitable plan would (require) percentages of affordable housing in all plans by disallowing alternative compliance, offsite provision, and fees paid instead of required amounts,” said Lisa Markovitz, president of The People’s Voice, a civic and political advocacy organization in Columbia, adding that the current system incentivizes concentrating lower cost units in lower market rate areas.

In mid-February, the County Council was considering legislation that would eliminate the option for developers to pay a fee in lieu of providing the required number of moderate-income housing units in accordance with zoning regulations, but equitable housing advocates weren’t holding their breath.

“It’s not going to pass, but at least [Councilwoman] Liz Walsh is doing what we think is right,” Kohn said.

Several of the council members themselves registered frustration at the county’s inability to make headway on its housing issues during the LWV information session.

Councilwoman Walsh, who represents District 1, said the county has already convened at least two Affordable Housing Commissions since she’s been in office. “We all know what the problem is, it just doesn’t get built.”

Similarly, she said, councilmembers were disappointed that legislation exempting new senior housing from the county’s school surcharge fee increase didn’t result in an incremental impact in the unmet market demand for that type of housing.

Council Chair Christiana Rigby, who represents District 3, suggested that shifting the focus to redevelopment in the new General Plan might also necessitate a change in the mindset of developers.

“The current active group is an older group used to doing things the way we’ve always done them,” Rigby said. “What we will be asking of developers in the future is a bit different. We need new people who are ready to take on different challenges. We need more folks in that space, especially with the need for office conversion.”

Kendall acknowledged that it could take quite a few years before implementation of any of the policies in HoCo By Design lead to any noticeable change on the ground.

“So much of our future development is subject to market conditions,” she said. “Large mixed-use activity centers and redevelopments require partnerships, a lending community and a developer, but I think we’ve got a great place to start.”

The final HoCo By Design plan is available at www.hocobydesign.com.