Residential building permits are up sharply in Howard County this year, and the county's inspection and permits chief is projecting a 43 percent increase over the depressed 1990 total.
But despite the increase, some housing experts inside and outside county government are uncertain about the future of the new housing market.
David M. Hammerman, who heads the county's Department of Inspections and Permits, noted last week that the 1,552 permits issued through October this year for detached houses, town houses and apartments is 249 above the total for all of 1990.
He projects the total number of housing unit permits for the year will reach about 1,860.
"We are still far below the peak periods, but I am encouraged," he said. "I hope we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel."
County Planning Director Joseph Rutter acknowledged "some improvement," but said "it is too early to draw any conclusions."
He noted that the 1990 total of 1,303 permits was unusually low because there had been a rush to apply for permits in 1989, when 5,330 were issued, as a result of "panic about interim growth-control legislation."
The County Council adopted legislation in September 1989 to limit home building permits to 3,000 and prohibit new subdivisions in the western section for 18 months. County leaders were concerned that growth would overwhelm schools and roads and wanted time to implement a General Plan for growth.
A new council lifted the limit on building permits in January.
The General Plan anticipates 2,500 new housing starts annually, so even if Mr. Hammerman's projections are accurate, the total would fall below that standard.
Joe Firetti, president of the Howard County chapter of the Homebuilders Association, also was skeptical about the numbers.
"There was a flurry of activity this summer because of a spurt in sales this spring, but new house sales were down again in September and October."
He said potential house buyers are concerned about job security. "I think they are paying down debts and waiting for lower interest rates before making a major financial commitment. I am seeing an improvement in the resale housing market, and that is a good sign because often new home sales are right behind it."