Lisa Markovitz, President of The People’s Voice

Howard County is facing budget shortfalls coming out of the pandemic. The Howard County Spending and Affordability Committee recently advised that projected revenues fall far below our expected expenditures. Short-term cuts won’t solve the problem.

Many, including Howard County Chamber of Commerce President Leonardo McClarty, agree that new sources of revenue are needed. Mr. McClarty noted, in a column in The Business Monthly, that the county should promote commercial growth and job creation.

Will the county prioritize these commendable goals?

A new General Plan, called HoCo By Design, is under review. It will guide development policies for 10 years. As businesses recover from the pandemic, does promoting commercial development offer more opportunities for county revenue growth than overly relying on expanding residential development?

Currently, HoCo By Design addresses commercial forecasts in limited ways. The plan reviews the Gateway area, a large parcel in Columbia that can draw more commercial and mixed use, the Route 1 corridor, and Village-type “Activity” Centers.

The plan, in its current form, does little to balance the desire to greatly increase housing supply with commercial growth.

Community input to the plan included a survey in April, where the choices to make were between four scenarios that forecasted adding between 45,599 to 80,625 new residents. The only way to note a desired focus on larger commercial development was to combine it with much larger residential development.

The scenarios should have allowed being able to note desired growth in varying categories, as these goals will compete for limited space and resources.

The plan surveys did not address or allow input into other concerns, such as environmental preservation, recreational space, or educational and traffic capacity issues.

Can the county meet more than one goal?

Looking at local legislation, the answer could be no. We continue to prioritize residential growth to the detriment of commercial space and even mixed-use space. Recent zoning changes have been made that eliminate previous commercial space requirements.

Last month, the County Council passed Council Bill 8-2021, a change that will end up creating far less commercial development along Route 1.

This bill originated from a request to eliminate the requirement to build the business space that was intended to be provided in projects with high allowances of residential building. The argument was made that there are a lot of businesses vacant at present.

More attention should have been paid to longer term planning, especially when the large residential projects in question would have captured a consumer base to utilize the on-site commercial of previous mixed-use rules.

These large projects will now be allowed to provide just homes, not combined with new businesses.

As some clamor for more housing supply, should we be restricting commercial space as businesses recover, to face higher rents? How do we balance all these needs?

As HoCo By Design rolls out, the County Council needs to hear input from the community asking to focus not only on housing needs, but commercial supply that benefits all residents.

We need to be realistic that land is a limited resource and rezoning too much of it for all residential is not something that can be easily undone later, as markets change and residents expect more nearby services.

We need to accommodate business growth across the county, in addition to Columbia and the Route 1 area, which deserve to have this addressed as well.

These are important issues regarding not only quality of life for residents, but the county’s economic prosperity. Let’s not ignore the preservation and infrastructure (education/traffic) concerns either. These are complex issues going into a long-term plan change, currently mostly focused on accommodating the most housing possible.

Residents and businesses should let the County Council know that they expect a better balance in their work and especially in this plan.

By Lisa Markovitz, MSF, is president of the Maryland civic/political group, The People’s Voice.