Amy Gowan, the new director of the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ), is ready to hit the ground running.

Gowan served as the department’s deputy director since 2015 and replaces outgoing director Val Lazdins. Gowan was appointed to the top job by Howard County Executive Calvin Ball.

As director, Gowan will oversee more than 60 employees in resource conservation, land development and zoning, long-range community planning, development engineering and demographic and data management.

She will also oversee implementation of the Ellicott City Watershed Master Plan and continuing progress on completing a Route 1 Corridor Master Plan.

“Amy Gowan … has proved to everyone that her knowledge of Howard County planning and zoning is deep and wide ranging,” said County Council Chair Deb Jung. “Her responsiveness is much appreciated and I am grateful that she has accepted this position.”

Prior to 2013, Gowan worked for the City of San Diego where she held policy and land use related positions. She served as an advisor to the mayor on land use projects and managed the city’s economic development and community revitalization.

She also spent several years managing homeless shelters and working on affordable housing issues.

As deputy director of DPZ, she oversaw department operations and managed initiatives that included a multi-phase process to evaluate the county’s zoning and land development regulations with the goal of creating a unified development code.

Department Changes

As the new director, Gowan has identified a few priorities for DPZ that include reconstituting some of the duties under the land development function.

“We have some key positions that need to be filled,” she said. “I’m looking at strengthening our urban design function.”

With approximately nine percent of county land remaining undeveloped or with development potential, the county is on the brink of moving into a redevelopment phase, she added.

“We need to position ourselves to respond to the challenges of redevelopment such as infrastructure and the need for site design,” she explained. “I’m looking to bring on some more urban design experience and shifting around some duties within our land development review process.”

Legislation that took effect in February creates new processes for requests to deviate from regulations known as alternative compliance, Gowan noted. “I’m anticipating we’ll see some changes in how those types of things move forward in the future as well.”

General Plan Update

Howard County’s pending General Plan update constitutes DPZ’s biggest short-term priority, Gowan said. “That process will directly answer the question of where we want to target future growth. Gateway is an area we have called out to see how we can transform that area. It has a lot of potential.”

The department will not only engage an urban planning and design team in the process but will also bring on other firms with expertise in environmental issues, transportation, market and economic analysis and even an agricultural economist.

“That’s a specialty we haven’t traditionally focused on with our general planning efforts,” Gowan said.

DPZ will soon begin using visualization software that allows the public to see the impact of growth scenarios in areas such as the environment, water and sewer capacity and fiscal response.

“We’re excited to be able to have this type of interactive conversation with the public,” she said.

Code Rewrite   

Despite making a lot of progress on evaluating the county’s zoning and land development regulations, “We made a decision to accelerate the General Plan update and postpone the regulation code rewrite,” Gowan said. “During the community input process we heard a number of issues that needed to be addressed at a policy level before they could be addressed at a regulatory level. Our expectation is that the General Plan will provide guidance for the code rewrite.”

Ultimately, she argued, merging the subdivision and zoning regulations into a unified development ordinance will result in clearer development standards that are organized in a more logical, modern fashion and will eliminate conflict that currently exists within the code.

Gowan wants to continue engaging citizens through the Plan Howard Academy, a free four-part training course that explores zoning regulations, growth policies, development planning and public input into the process.

“The feedback we get is overwhelmingly positive and it helps participants understand the challenges we face, how everything fits together, who to go to when there’s a problem and how to navigate the system,” she said. “That’s a big priority because it’s in line with being people-driven, expanding opportunities and engaging the public in learning what we do and how we do it.”

Assuming her new position has been a humbling experience, Gowan said.

“The council has been so supportive,” she said. “I was definitely honored by the level of confidence Calvin Ball had in me taking on this role.”