Sunday, November 29, 2009

Central Columbia plan enforceable, safe despite General Growth bankruptcy, council told

Posted By Scarlett Lu
By Larry Carson

The plan to remake central Columbia is both enforceable and safe despite developer General Growth Properties' bankruptcy woes, the Howard County Council heard during its first work session on two proposed bills Monday evening.

Council members appeared reassured after the two-hour discussion, though Alan Klein, leader of a citizens group that has criticized the plan, remained skeptical.

"We can be confident we have in front of us the plan and zoning that is enforceable. We can start working on the details," council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said as the session ended. Amendments will be drafted to make sure, she said. "My goal is for it to be enforceable," she said after the meeting.

Other members also seemed satisfied.

"It allows me to go forward with more peace of mind, and look at details," said Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson. The discussion involved Deputy County Solicitor Paul Johnson; Jay Shulman, a private attorney hired as a consultant; William Erskine, a development lawyer who has studied recent court decisions on land use; Gabrielle Koeppel, a GGP official; and county planning director Marsha McLaughlin.

The council has plans for four more work sessions, starting Monday and continuing Dec. 2, Dec. 7 (after the regular 7:30 p.m. council legislative session) and Dec. 8, according to Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat. All the meetings except Dec. 7 will begin at 4:30 p.m. at school board headquarters.

How to enforce aspects of the 30-year plan contained in a proposed General Plan amendment and how to make sure GGP's bankruptcy doesn't result in the loss of expensive amenities that are the heart of the huge plan were two major fears the council heard in three days of public hearings earlier in November. The second bill is a Zoning Regulation Amendment, which contains the legal basis for the zoning changes needed to allow the plan to happen.

The overall plan calls for up to 5,500 new residences, 4.3 million square feet of new commercial offices, 1.25 million square feet of retail space, hotels and a renovated Merriweather Post Pavilion. But also included are cultural buildings, large public plazas and walkways, a new transit stop and potentially a new interchange on U.S. 29.

But the lawyers said the two bills could be linked by language that would ensure that if the amenities aren't built, then the entire project would stop, even if GGP is forced to sell pieces of its holdings to other builders.

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