Last June, after 13 years of building homes in Howard `D County, Joe Firetti took his business elsewhere, frustrated by the county's growth cap and its "unpredictable" system of rationing permits.
But yesterday, Mr. Firetti said he would return to Howard "despite a lousy market" now that the County Council has scrapped the controversial cap that allowed only 3,000 home-building permits over the 18-months that began in September 1989.
"I am not euphoric, but I am relieved," said Mr. Firetti, newly elected president of the county chapter of the home-builders association. "I know now that at least I can obtain building permits."
The cap was to have expired March 15, but the council voted Wednesday to lift it two months early in the face of a sagging real estate market.
Builders and bankers, who were reluctant to loan money for projects in Howard because of the unpredictable permit system, vTC hailed the move as one that would stimulate new development in a depressed economy.
Brantley Development, for instance, will be able to develop a 33-lot subdivision near Ilchester, in the eastern corner of the county, which was stymied after the cap was imposed.
"There was no feasible way of getting building permits, and we could not finance the project without the permits," said company President John Liparini.
Abolishing the permit cap is "the first step in the re-establishment of Howard County's credibility," H. Allen Becker, president of Chesapeake Federal Savings and Loan Association told the council before it voted on the measure.
It removes "a dark cloud" that has been hanging over the county and sends "a message to banks, the insurance industry and lawyers that Howard County is a safe place to do business," added James Schulte, vice president of Security Development Corp., an Ellicott City company that sells lots to builders.
But in the short term, at least, county officials do not expect another housing boom.
Joseph W. Rutter Jr., acting planning director, said his staff is prepared for a "blip of a couple hundred building permits from those ready to go who could not previously get an allocation, but then it will smooth out again."
He predicted the county would issue about 1,500 building permits this year, a slight increase over the 1,321 permits issued last year when the cap was in place, but far fewer than the 4,000 a year that were being issued in the late 1980s.
Howard County is not alone in grappling with the growth issue and a slow economy at the same time. But so far it is the only area county to ease growth restrictions, although no other jurisdiction had gone as far as to cap home-building permits.
Land-use planners in Anne Arundel County considered, but quickly rejected, a suggestion to remove the county's impact fees in a meeting a few months ago, according to Owen White, head of planning and zoning.
"It was a discussion of what we could do to help developers in a declining economy," he recalled. "But what we're doing is discussing methods to speed the permit process, not relax regulations."
Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann is pressing her staff to develop legislation to require that adequate public facilities -- such as roads, schools and sewers -- be in place before new development is allowed.
"It's her top priority," said William Carroll, Harford's planning director.
In Baltimore County, where stringent growth-control measures already are in place, officials have imposed a moratorium on development near seven schools that are overcrowded while they develop new regulations. And it is unlikely that that moratorium will be lifted, said P. Thomas Fields, head of planning and zoning.
"It's giving us the chance to prepare a whole series of things," he said. "And it's not just stopping development, but having some sort of mechanism to build the schools in places that we need them.
Carroll County has imposed a building moratorium in the southern part of the county because a sewer treatment plant is operating at capacity, and it has adopted an adequate facilities ordinance. But for the most part "we're letting the free market take its own course," said Robert A. Bair, executive assistant to the county commissioners.
Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker insisted, however, that "removal of the cap is not a retreat from our plans to control growth."
"We are still working on an adequate-public-facilities ordinance and hope to have it go before the County Council in several months," said Mr. Ecker, who originally supported extending the cap but changed his mind. "We are going to monitor housing development and strive for the goal of 2,500 homebuilding permits annually."
Lifting the cap may not lead to another building boom, especially in a depressed economy, said T. James Truby, president of Economic Forum, a Howard county business group, and a member of the committee drafting new growth legislation. But it does have symbolic importance.
"I think it sends a signal that the county is moving beyond stopgap measures to a more businesslike approach to manage growth," he said. "Business responds to symbolic actions like that in a positive way."