‘Focused in the Future’ – Howland Updates Comprehensive Plan

HOWLAND – Housing options that cater to emerging demographic and economic trends, a town center at a key intersection and a joint economic development district involving the former BDM Steel site are among the concepts that could emerge from Howland Township updating its comprehensive plan.

The township in Trumbull County is updating its plan, with a draft to be voted on in August by its board of trustees, says the township planning director, Kim Mascarella.

Work on the plan, which remains in its conceptual stage, began last September, Mascarella says.

The process began with assembling a steering committee and hiring Envision Consulting to work with the township and committee. Leaders of community institutions were interviewed and the public was invited to participate in a preferences-and-attitudes survey. Two public forums also were held.

Howland Trustee Matthew Vansuch says “people want to walk more places.”

“We took all of that feedback and we’re just now getting ready to review a draft plan,” Mascarella says.

Documents presented at the public forums reflect changes in the township. Among them are a 5.3% drop in population since 2010 and a reduction in commercial land use attributed to the growth of online shopping and increases in workers working at home.

“We are not immune to the demographic changes that have happened in the Mahoning Valley,” says Howland Township Trustee Matthew Vansuch. He points to an increase in levels of poverty, a condition not typically associated with the township.

The township’s comprehensive plan, last updated in 2010, normally is overhauled every 10 years but the pandemic delayed it.

“From a legal perspective, you must have a comprehensive plan to do zoning in the township. But it’s also a good tool by which you establish what your community is, where you want it to go and avenues to get there,” Vansuch says.

One recommendation is expected to be a Howland Center overlay district at the intersection of state Route 46 and East Market Street. While the portion of state Route 46 south of Route 82 likely would remain situated toward large-scale commercial development, the township is looking at the area north of 82, including East Market Street, being “a little different in scale” and friendlier to pedestrian and bicycle traffic, Mascarella says.

“New development might be a little different. It might be situated closer to the road, where it looks a bit more pedestrian-scaled. Outdoor dining might be situated streetside instead of to the back,” she says.

The township is looking to work with Trumbull County to study the East Market corridor from traffic and right-of-way perspectives, to see if there is a way to reallocate the right of way to accommodate pedestrians.

“We’re not trying to turn Howland into a no-vehicle community. But we are recognizing that people want to walk more places,” Vansuch says. Roads such as Route 46, Howland-Wilson Road and East Market Street, which has some sidewalks, are hazardous for pedestrians.

“Elm Road is another corridor that we want to focus on,” Mascarella says. Since parts of the artery are in Warren and Howland, the township wants to collaborate with the city on an overlay district to standardize zoning and sign regulations.

“It’s a corridor that has a lot of right-of-way,” she says. “It’s more vehicular centered but we do have people walking to meet their daily needs along Elm Road. So we need to enhance the sidewalks.”

Howland has “a very good mix right now of commercial development in the uses that that we allow,” Vansuch says. What differentiates Howland from Boardman Township, Mahoning County’s largest commercial center, is topography. Howland is “on the side of a hill” and Boardman is flat.

Including the intent to be more pedestrian friendly in the comprehensive plan can encourage entities such as the Ohio Department of Transportation to fund such upgrades. “If you look at the [diverging diamond exchange on Route 46] that’s coming, there’s sidewalks in there,” he says.

Some changes the Howland Center overlay district could bring include reducing the front setback, so buildings over time might be built closer to the street with parking in the back, Mascarella says. Also incorporated into the concept are an enhanced streetscape with sidewalks, added landscaping and corridor furniture such as benches, waste receptacles, bike racks and bike repair stations.

“The community wants to be on foot more but they want to feel safe when they do it,” she says. “They want to get to some hiking trails and they want to engage in recreation closer to their home.” Mascarella expects the update to recommend an active transportation plan that will “set in place a plan for future investments in sidewalks and bicycle facilities.”

Other elements of the conceptual plan catering to these interests include creating a Mosquito Creek water trail linking to the Mahoning River and a 6,600-foot long greenway.

The plan also is intended to focus on more housing, including for residents who want to downsize, as well as to accommodate people coming to the Mahoning Valley to meet growing workforce needs. Among the areas being looked at is Bolindale, in the southwest corner of the township.

“There’s almost 80 acres of land. All the utilities are there but only 23% of the lots have a house on them,” Mascarella says. “We don’t know what that looks like yet but we do want to plug into that regional effort to repopulate the Mahoning Valley.”

Vansuch acknowledges many people don’t want the traditional, suburban single-family house and might be more amenable to multi-unit housing. Current township zoning has the ability to accommodate a “more dense” residential footprint. There are a few places with five or six acres where cluster houses or townhouses could be developed.

Other elements being considered for the plan based on the citizen recommendations include promoting tree cover and changes to parking standards to reduce the number of required spaces and promote more shared parking to help address stormwater issues.

“We have an overriding concern about flooding, rain and stormwater,” Vansuch says.

Restaurants that have seen a shift toward takeout don’t need as many parking spaces and reducing the amount of required parking spaces means additional land for property owners to add buildings.

Because the Valley remains a “vehicle-centered community,” lots of parking is needed, but that parking isn’t used for most of the year, Mascarella points out. Trees also take up a lot of stormwater and tree cover can provide shade to help reduce utility costs.

“So the plan will recommend a tree canopy study to make some recommendations as to where we can enhance tree cover in public spaces,” she continues. The township also can make recommendations to interested property owners about how they can allocate their resources and what trees grow best in specific types of soil.

Having a new comprehensive plan in place sends a message to the business community that the township is moving in one direction as a community, Mascarella says. And the corridor plan for East Market and the overlay district will communicate that the township is looking for smaller scale retail and restaurants and more walkable types of businesses in that area.

“The plan offers a bit of a predictable welcome mat for businesses to plan their future as well,” she says.

Infrastructure investments in the Golden Triangle industrial area, which focused on the needs of the businesses based there, grew out of the current comprehensive plan, Vansuch says. It listed about a half dozen projects to improve the area for those companies, all of which are completed or funded.

“It’s not just about attracting new business. It’s making sure that the businesses that we have stay here,” he says.

“We want to retain the people that are here, invite more families to discover Howland and the business community to find a home here as well,” Mascarella says. “It’s always a balancing act and the plan helps us to keep focused in the future. So if we have changes in our leadership, hopefully the plan will keep us focused and keep us moving in the right direction according to our values.”

Pictured at top: Kim Mascarella, township planning director, says Howland Center is one focus.