On Halloween, good sense growth management in Howard County goes on holiday. What remains of the county's limits on development -- a ban on new subdivisions in the western part of the county -- expires at the end of the month.
The life and death of this measure brings into sharp focus still-unresolved growth issues and government inertia in Maryland's fastest-growing county. After failing to craft workable adequate-facilities legislation last fall, the county council voted to lock up permits. The idea was to prevent building in areas with overburdened schools and roads until the next council enacts permanent controls.
Instead, after scarcely three months in office the new council shelved the issue, concluding that the economy had somehow negated the need for growth control. With some urging from an increasingly powerful business community, the cap was rolled back. Now, the imminent demise of the moratorium on development in the west creates an opportunity for developers to build unimpeded by responsibility for road and school capacity.
The rationale for this is that a huge, unfunded development backlog exists, so there won't be any rush on permits. "The economy is controlling everything," says Mr. Ecker. This is nothing more than a smoke screen for Howard's continuing inability to deal with growth. After a year, legislation forcing developers to shoulder part of the burden for roads and schools is still under study. What is being discussed on a preliminary basis seems to us a watered-down version of earlier proposals. It reportedly will include a per-unit tax to help pay for new roads and keep builders from starting projects in overcrowded school zones. Unlike earlier proposals, however, the onus for building new schools would be on the county, not developers.
Another loose end is the issue of comprehensive rezoning, which promises to evoke a spirited debate. Already, there is loud screaming in opposition to a mixed-use development proposal for Waverly Woods -- 682 acres of county farmland. In the east, people are fighting the idea of higher densities to accommodate affordable housing.
Howard officials are plainly right in observing that development is at a low point. But this should not be naively construed to mean that controlling and calibrating growth is yesterday's problem. Dodging the issue -- or worse, crafting legislation overly generous to developers -- is foolish and short-sighted. The economy has given Howard an unexpected pause in which to adjust future growth to demand for roads and schools. The opportunity should not be squandered.