Council to weigh 2 competing bills on Howard growth

January 01, 1991|By Philip Davis | Philip Davis,Howard County Bureau of The Sun

Despite looming recession, the struggle to manage growth in Howard County will continue in 1991, with the filing of competing emergency council bills: one that would lift building-permit restrictions, another that would continue them.

With the support of County Executive Charles I. Ecker, County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, has introduced a bill that would throw out a cap on residential building activity that was passed by the council in September 1989.

Mr. Gray said yesterday that the recession made the cap unnecessary and that the county needed to encourage development to bring in much-needed revenue.

Mr. Ecker recently told the council that the county faces a revenue shortfall of as much as $20 million.

But for those who feel growth is still a worrisome threat, County Council member Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, has introduced a bill that would continue the provisions of the 1989 Growth Management Act an extra three months, until June 15.

Both bills were introduced late Friday and could be considered as early as Jan. 22. To be passed as emergency legislation, either bill would have to be approved by four out of the five council members.

Ms. Pendergrass admitted that tales of the suddenly stagnant housing market in Howard County may make her bill moot, but she said she and wary voters in her district needed to be convinced.

The Growth Management Act of 1989 -- passed at a time when Howard County was in the middle of a development boom -- put a ceiling of 3,000 residential permits that could be given out during the bill's 18-month life span.

Now, with three months before it is to expire, county officials said that the permits issued will be several hundred short of 3,000 and that no work was being done on at least that many projects more.

According to the county Department of Licenses and Permits, only 610 permits for detached houses had been issued as of Nov. 30 this year, compared with 2,348 for the same period in 1989.

But because of a complex regional allocation process, many people who still want to build in the current market have not been able to get an allocation certificate that would let them.

Mr. Gray's bill would junk that process and hand out permits on a first-come, first-served basis.

Besides streamlining the permit process, Mr. Gray said, "I hope it will at least help the revenue picture in the county and get some housing units occupied." Each permit means additional fees and taxes paid to the county treasury.

And, he noted, the bill would keep in place restrictions on subdivisions in the western end of Howard County and would continue to prohibit rezoning in the rest of the county until Oct. 31.

The bill is sure to encounter spirited debate when it is introduced Jan. 7. Councilman Charles C. Feaga, who represents western Howard County, said the bill was a "good-faith effort" to address the growth cap's problems.

But new member Darrel E. Drown said, "I'm afraid it sends a signal that growth is no longer a problem and that everything is hunky-dory again. It is true, in that the economy is bad, but growth will always be a problem if we don't have a rational, thought-out plan for it."

He added that his voters elected him because they wanted development controlled and that they are still very concerned about the issue.

Accommodating that concern, Ms. Pendergrass' bill would extend the growth cap until June 15. It would continue the allocation system, allowing an extra 625 residential units to be permitted between March 15 and June 15.

Ms. Pendergrass said she felt obligated to file the bill, because the council has not passed an ordinance linking construction of adequate public facilities with the pace of growth.

She said that hard numbers to prove the county's growth has slowed have been hard to come by.

She admitted, "Maybe the [development] pressure isn't there any more, but I need to know that before I'm satisfied and think the citizens need to know that before lifting a cap."

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