The Howard County Council revised its 20-year blueprint for guiding development last night in an attempt to keep the growing county from becoming another congested Washington suburb.
By a 4 to 1 vote, with Charles C. Feaga (R-District 5) voting against the plan, Council members approved revisions that grew out of forums on the county's future held last September by County Executive Elizabeth Bobo (D).
The general plan has become a lightning rod in the debate over controlling growth, and its revision last night is likely to be an issue in this year's county elections.
The General Plan, last revised in 1982, calls for preserving as much open space as possible in a 9,000-acre green belt that would divide the county's suburban east and rural west. The green belt would run west of Columbia and link Patapsco State Park in the north to Patuxent State Park in the south.
In the east, the plan attempts to steer new development into mixed-use residential and commercial centers in Columbia and the southeast corner of the county.
Council members voted to study whether to direct development around existing towns in the west such as Clarksville, Lisbon, West Friendship and Cooksville. The change would be in lieu of a Bobo proposal to cluster development in the west at a ratio of one house to every five acres suitable for development. The county currently requires that houses be built on three-acre lots.
Despite 72 amendments, council members left intact most of the revisions offered by Bobo.
Already, candidates are lining up to challenge Bobo and three of the five Council members over the positions they've taken on the General Plan. The other two council members, C. Vernon Gray (D-District 3) and Paul R. Farragut (D-District 4) are running unopposed.
"I plan to make the General Plan very much an election issue," said John Taylor, echoing the view of other challengers.
"This is our county's future we are deciding here, and right now it seems we are handing it over to the developers," said Taylor, who is running against fellow Republican Feaga.
Bobo and council members have disputed the contention that the plan favors developers. They said the plan clearly outlines actions intended to control growth.
Bobo has said she will follow through on a General Plan promise to introduce legislation to restrict development to places where adequate roads, schools and water and sewer service exist.
The General Plan also calls for laws to preserve trees, historic buildings, scenic roads and about 10,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land along the Patuxent and Patapsco rivers.
"This General Plan calls for us to do things and is not just a lot of words on paper," said council member Angela Beltram (D-District 2).
"I think it's a General Plan I can run on. Absolutely," said Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass (D-District 1). "This is very much a compromise plan. It is neither a no-growth plan . . . nor a whatever-the-market-can-bear plan."
The plan sets 20-year goals of 5,300 new low- and moderate-income housing units, and council members last night acted quickly to establish a county housing commission to oversee the work. Still, Gray said he was disappointed members did not set higher goals such as trying to build 8,000 units of affordable housing in 20 years.
Gray said he is "confounded" by members giving "lip service" to affordable housing and then not living up to their rhetoric. Other members called the goals unrealistic.
Feaga said he voted against the plan because zoning intended for his western district would too severely cut growth.
"The east has been tolerating more than their fair share of growth," Feaga said, in calling for greater densities in the west.