Subterfuge in Howard

March 03, 1991

There's a right way and a wrong way to manage growth during a recession. The Howard County Council, in January lifted an unpopular cap on building permits, is choosing the wrong way. The council claims the cap is exacerbating a down real estate market and is in fact unnecessary at a time when builders are hard-pressed to fund projects. "I don't think our vote has anything to do with the intent and purpose of our growth-management plans," said Council President Vernon C. Gray.

The issue isn't so much the permit limit as it is Howard's continued inability to deal effectively with growth. The cap was supposed to curb development -- and the accompanying strains on infrastructure -- until permanent controls were put in place. Unfortunately, these controls have yet to materialize, especially adequate public facilities legislation forcing builders to help shoulder infrastructure costs. It has been derailed time and again by the council's inability to craft a workable bill.

Last October, the outgoing council passed a "resolution" obligating its successors to come up with a law or continue the building cap. This has turned out to be little more than a politically expedient means of shelving the issue. Three months later, the ban was history -- though no progress has been made toward an adequate facilities law.

County Executive Charles Ecker defends lifting the cap, claiming the county is simply "trying to return some consistency and predictability to the process." Hardly. This latest dodge simply lets developers who can afford it build without having to worry about how their projects will impact nearby roads and schools.

Mr. Gray makes the point that given the economy, Howard isn't likely to be overrun with new development. He's right. But he and others are wrong to assume that lifting the ban poses no threat. Without adequate public facilities legislation it is possible, even probable, that new building will occur in areas already plagued by traffic gridlock and overcrowded schools.

As executives in other jurisdictions have correctly noted, an economic slowdown offers the opportunity to implement growth control mechanisms for the next boom. Howard, however, seems to be using the recession as an excuse to run from a problem it has never managed to master.

Developers, moreover, have deftly employed the slowdown to convince county officials that the falloff in Howard's real estate-related revenue is due to a lack of available permits when the true culprit is a scarcity of bank loans and sluggish demand.

Instead of burying the issue in meaningless subterfuge, the Howard County Council ought to get to work on adequate facilities legislation. Unless steps are taken now, Howard's growing infrastructure overload will far outlast the current recession.

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