County's Planning Fine, Expert Says, But Can Improve

Suggestions Include Clustered Housing, Narrower Streets, Smaller Lots

September 18, 1991|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff writer

A planning expert complimented the county's growth management plan, but advised taking further actions to preserve open space, promote more aesthetically attractive developments and make housing more affordable.

"The zoning in this county is much better than most communities in the Northeast," said Randall G. Arendt, vice president of conservation programs at the National Land Trust Inc. in Media, Pa. "But you shouldn't rest on your laurels. There's always room for refinement and improvements."

Arendt, a widely recognized planner who previously worked for NewEngland governments and the University of Massachusetts, addressed about 60 county and municipal officials and developers at the second Town/County Partnership Conference at Carroll Community College Saturday.

Chris Batten, owner of a Westminster land planning firm, also spoke about alternative development designs at the conference, intended to promote coordination between the county and its eight municipalities in planning Carroll's future.

Carroll officials reacted positively to the presentations, which emphasized clustering housing to preserve open space, reducing street widths and lot sizes, creating community character and recreational amenities, varying housing types within developments and allowing more mixed uses, such as apartments attached to homes and businesses in residential areas.

Arendt debunked the popular theory that establishing homes on lots of two acres or larger is an effective way of preserving the countryside. That typeof development is expensive to equip with services, consumes vast spaces and results in enclaves that look "alien" in the countryside, hesaid. Under county zoning regulations, rural Carroll has the potential for extensive development of that type, he said.

"It's not development per se that's the problem, but the pattern -- how it spreads out over land," said Arendt.

Suburban and country dwellers are occupying more land for each new residence than previous generations.

Arendt's ideas had merit, said County Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy.

"There's no fanatic like a convert," he said. "When I got into politics (as a Manchester councilman) I thought having one house on five acres was preserving the countryside. But I've been converted to a different vision."

Arendt challenged the local officials to set mandatory standards for development for aspects such as design, open space and maximum lot sizes, street widths and road setbacks. Houses thatare closer together nearer to the street create a stronger sense of neighborhood, or "village," he said.

"There should be more to lifethan house lots and streets," he said. "If those are the only standards for developers, that's all we'll get. You don't want to spin the wheel of fortune and hope developers do the development you want."

Some of the recommendations, such as clustering houses and reducing street widths, benefit developers by reducing expenses, which can translate to lower home prices. Incentives, such as allowing more units than provided under zoning for following certain guidelines, also canbe offered.

Batten, a landscape architect who has worked for the county and several Carroll municipalities, asked local officials to examine whether regulations are restricting options for developers tooseverely and driving up home prices.

"Developers are not always the villains," he said. "They're sometimes the victims. Regulations sometimes are the problem."

County Assistant Planning Director K. Marlene Conaway agreed that county and town regulations prohibit some alternatives. Some municipalities don't allow clustering houses, even though it results in the same density.

Many of the concepts expressed Saturday weren't revelations to Carroll officials, yet they haven't been put into practice frequently, said James Schumacher, Sykesville's town manager.

"If we don't do something very soon, in a lot of towns it will be too late" because of development pressures, he said.

The conference is an outgrowth of the "strategic planning" committees appointed by the commissioners three years ago to study growth-related issues such as housing, infrastructure, agricultural preservation and police and fire protection. The committees have recommendedsolutions.

Responding to concerns that the planning process was moving too slowly and cautiously, the commissioners emphasized that they wanted to take enough time to make wise decisions.

"We need to know what we want to do or mistakes will be made," said Commissioner Julia W. Gouge, adding that Saturday's conference provided valuable insights.

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