New Town Development Process

The New Town (NT) Zoning District is the zoning classification for Columbia, an unincorporated, planned community located in Howard County. The Zoning Regulations establish the development planning and review process for the NT District. 

There are four major steps: the Preliminary Development Plan, Comprehensive Sketch Plan, Final Development Plan, and Site Development Plan. In addition, NT development is subject to the steps required by the County Code for subdivision of land; Sketch Plans, Preliminary Plans and Final Plans. At each stage of the NT District development process, public meetings are held at which anyone can make comments on a proposed plan or listen to comments made by others. When attending such meetings, it is helpful to understand the type of plan being proposed, the decisions that will be made at the particular stage of development, and the criteria that will be used in deciding whether to approve, deny or require modification to the plan.

Planning and Review Process

Preliminary Development Plan

All petitions to create a NT District or add land to the NT District must include a Preliminary Development Plan (PDP), which maps the general location of land uses, major roads, and major public facilities. The land use categories shown on the Columbia PDP are Single Family Residential (Low Density and Medium Density); Apartments (this category includes townhouse areas); Employment Center - Commercial; Employment Center - Industrial; and Open Space.

In 1965, the County Commissioners approved the original PDP for Columbia. The PDP can be amended only by the Howard County Zoning Board following a public hearing. 

Comprehensive Sketch Plan

The Comprehensive Sketch Plan is the second step in the development of the NT District. A Comprehensive Sketch Plan covers a portion of the NT District and establishes such items as the specific location and acreage of land use areas, the number and type of dwelling units, and the specific location of roads, open space, schools and other public or community uses.

The Comprehensive Sketch Plan also includes "criteria" establishing requirements for the area covered by the plan such as permitted uses, minimum lot sizes, parking requirements, setbacks, building heights, and other development regulations. In most other areas of the County, the Zoning Regulations established these requirements. In the NT District, these requirements are tailored to fit a development plan for a particular area. 

The Howard County Planning Board must approve the Comprehensive Sketch Plan. The Planning Board is made up of five County citizens, appointed by the County Executive and confirmed by the County Council, who volunteer to serve five-year terms.

The Planning Board holds either a public meeting or a public hearing on a proposed Comprehensive Sketch Plan. Both types of public forums allow the public to attend and comment on a proposal, but public hearings have more formal procedures and more rigorous advertising requirements than public meetings. Hearings must be advertised by posting a sign on the property and placing a legal notice in two newspapers. Meetings are advertised by being listed in the Planning Board's published agenda, which is available on the Department of Planning and Zoning Web Page.

A public hearing is required for most Comprehensive Sketch Plans. The Zoning Regulations require a public hearing in several situations; for example, a hearing is required if the plan borders property not in the NT District (unless all owners of adjacent non-NT properties sign a waiver of the public hearing requirement) or if the proposed acreage dedicated to employment or residential uses deviates by more than 10% from the acreage indicated in the PDP.

Final Development Plan

After the Comprehensive Sketch Plan is approved, the developer submits a Final Development Plan (FDP). Generally, the subdivision Sketch Plan and Preliminary Plan are approved before the FDP is submitted. The FDP provides exact boundary descriptions and acreage for the land use areas shown on the Comprehensive Sketch Plan and must include the detailed development requirements (criteria) approved with the Comprehensive Sketch Plan. The Planning Board holds a public meeting on the FDP, and approves the plan if it is consistent with the Comprehensive Sketch Plan. The FDP is recorded in the Howard County Land Records and becomes the permanent record of land use controls for NT properties.

Site Development Plan

A Site Development Plan (SDP) is the last stage before building permits are issued and construction begins in the NT District. A SDP must be prepared by a licensed professional (engineer or architect) and shows exactly how a site will be developed grading, utilities, building, driveways, parking areas, landscaping and other details.

Site Development Plans are required for all development in the NT District and at the Planning Board's discretion, may need to be approved by the Planning Board following a public meeting. When approving a Comprehensive Sketch Plan, the Planning Board decides whether the SDP's for that section of the NT District require Planning Board approval. Generally, the Planning Board reserves for itself the authority to approve all SDP's except those for single-family detached dwellings.

At the SDP stage, the Planning Board reviews and approves details such as adequacy of landscaping and the relationship of parking areas and driveways to streets and other properties. Land use decisions made at the PDP and Comprehensive Sketch Plan stages cannot be revisited by the Planning Board at this stage.

New Town Development Types


Downtown Columbia Revitalization


To implement the recommendations of the Downtown Columbia Plan, new development or redevelopment of any property located within Downtown Columbia that is approved after April 6, 2010, must comply with all provisions applicable to Downtown Revitalization, except as provided in Section 125.0.A.9.f of the Zoning Regulations. Downtown Revitalization shall require the approval of (1) a Final Development Plan or Final Development Plan Amendment, and (2) a Site Development Plan.



Village Center Redevelopment


The owner of any portion of a Village Center may propose Major Village Center Redevelopment by filing a petition to amend an approved Preliminary Development Plan, Comprehensive Sketch Plan, or Final Development Plan for the owner’s property in the Village Center. 



Traditional Development


New Development

In the NT District, as in all areas of the County, a building permit is required for construction. Before applying for a building permit, please review the Final Development Plan (FDP) to ensure the project complies with the FDP before submitting the building permit application.

A Site Development Plan (SDP) must be approved before a building permit is issued for most new construction in the NT District. However, for detached residences and townhouses, the approved SDP does not need to be revised for many improvements made after the house is built, such as the construction of decks, additions, and sheds, as long as the improvements comply with the requirements established by the FDP (e.g., setbacks).

New and expanded nonresidential or apartment developments require a revised SDP, which must be approved by the Planning Board unless the changes are considered minor in accordance with Section 125.0.G.2&3 of the Zoning Regulations. Minor changes not requiring Planning Board approval include, but are not limited to, minor accessory structures, small buildings or parking lot additions, and clearing or grading that does not exceed 5,000 square feet in area.

Adjustments to FDP Bulk Requirements


Bulk requirements are numerical requirements such as building setbacks, building height, lot coverage, lot size, and the number of parking spaces. A property owner wishing to make improvements that do not comply with the bulk requirements listed in the FDP may apply to the Planning Board for an adjustment to the requirement. For example, a homeowner may apply for a setback reduction or an increase in allowed building coverage. The Zoning Regulations authorize the Planning Board to approve such adjustments if it finds that:

  • The adjustment will not alter the character of the neighborhood or area in which the property is located, will not impair the appropriate use or development of an adjacent property, and will not be detrimental to the public welfare; and
  • The adjustment is needed due to practical difficulties or unnecessary hardships, which arise in complying strictly with the Final Development Plan, and/or results in a better design than would be allowed by strict compliance with the development criteria.

A request for an adjustment to the bulk regulations requires a public meeting if requested as part of the Site Development Plan for the development of an unimproved property or if the request is for an addition or alteration to a developed property.

Add a Permitted Use to the FDP

Only uses listed in the Final Development Plan (FDP) are permitted on a property. Other uses are permitted only if an amendment to the FDP is approved by the Planning Board.

Only the original petitioner for the NT District may propose amendments to an approved Comprehensive Sketch Plan or FDP, except any property owner may propose amendments to the FDP to allow a particular use on his or her property. In such a case, no amendment shall be proposed which would either alter the land use designation established by the Comprehensive Sketch Plan or allow an increase in residential density.

For such residential property, the Planning Board must hold a public hearing on the additional use and may approve the request only if they find that:

  • The use is consistent with the land use designation of the property established on the recorded FDP and compatible with existing or proposed development in the vicinity; and
  • The use will not adversely affect vicinal properties.

A proposed Comprehensive Sketch Plan Amendment shall be reviewed in accordance with Section 125.0.C of the Zoning Regulations, and a proposed FDP Amendment shall be revised in accordance with Sections 125.0.D or 125.0.E of the Zoning Regulations.

Non-County Approvals

Columbia Village Architectural Committee | Howard Research and Development ARC Review Rights Map
Residential and non-residential properties located in the NT District may be subject to private covenants and/or review by an Architectural Review Committee. Howard County has no involvement in these processes. Please visit the websites below for further information on applicable private covenants and restrictions.

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