They came asking for zoning for a car dealership, a landscaping company and a wedding chapel, saying that without proper approvals they would have to move their businesses. Others came with "Keep South County Rural" stickers, to protest proposed zoning changes that they said would intrude upon their way of life.

One hundred and thirty five people testified before the Anne Arundel County Council on a bill that could yield broad zoning changes in the Annapolis and more rural South County areas. More than 100 applications for changes in those areas are pending before the council, which is tasked with weighing sensitive land use issues that arouse passion from many residents concerned about development in their neighborhoods.

Monday night's crowd appeared evenly split between those in favor of the zoning changes — which in many cases would allow more development — and those opposed to them.

The county's once-in-a-decade comprehensive rezoning process began this year with approval of zoning changes in the Laurel area, where the federal military base realignment process, or BRAC, is expected to bring thousands of jobs and new residents. The process, scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, has proved controversial as residents have complained about a lack of opportunity for input as landowners and developers lobby for zoning changes.

To remedy the situation, County Executive John R. Leopold has tapped the county's Planning Advisory Board to hold public hearings on amendments to zoning bills, a new step in the process.

Monday night's hearing before the County Council gave members of the community the first opportunity to comment on the proposed changes for Annapolis and South County. Councilman Chris Trumbauer, a Democrat from Annapolis, and Councilman Jerry Walker, a Republican from South County, announced at the start of the meeting that they would not introduce any amendments to the bill but were just there to listen to constituents. They did not comment afterward.

Mike Hill, owner of Chesapeake Landscape and Design on Defense Highway in Gambrills, brought along two employees to testify on behalf of his effort to obtain commercial zoning for his property. If he fails to get the necessary zoning, Hill said, he would have to move his business to Prince George's County or to Northern Virginia.

Anthony DiNenna and business partner James Clements own two office buildings on Bestgate Road in Annapolis. The property is zoned for high-density residential use, but the buildings can operate as offices because of a "nonconforming use allowance." Still, DiNenna said, without proper zoning it can be tough to obtain bank financing, which could be an obstacle if he were to sell the buildings.

Amy Evans, a Lothian resident, came armed with an information sheet detailing why the council should not allow the conversion of 14 acres of rural land in Lothian Circle into commercial property.

"Ask anyone who lives down here and they will tell you they love the farms, families and green space," the sheet read. "Who wants to live amongst empty strip malls and unnecessary suburban sprawl?"

The council will hold another public hearing next month.

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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