New Howard growth plan calms clashers Ecker's idea seems to rouse little opposition.

January 06, 1992|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Evening Sun Staff

Since Howard County's last construction boom began in the late 1980s, every government plan to control growth has drawn fire from activists who wanted tighter restrictions on building and developers who didn't want any limits at all.

But the administration of County Executive Charles I. Ecker is introducing a growth measure in County Council tonight amid virtual silence from the opposing camps.

"I think people are tired of all the fights that went on in the last three years," says Angela Beltram, who was considered the County Council's most vocal growth-control advocate when she served on the legislative body during a period of rapid construction.

The council has passed three different growth control measures since 1989, including one that creates a general blueprint for expansion over the next two decades and limits construction to 2,500 homes a year.

Those controls and the recession have slowed the overall rate of growth, and the Ecker bill is designed to ensure that future construction occurs only where the county has adequate roads and schools. Beltram herself introduced an adequate public facilities bill in 1990 that was tabled and eventually killed. Shortly thereafter, then-County Executive Elizabeth Bobo introduced a growth measure that both opponents and proponents of growth said was too confusing to figure out. It also failed.

Beverly Wilhide, an Ecker aide, says that with the exception of one community, the administration has heard few complaints about its latest proposal, probably because the commission that created it included representatives of various groups, including developers and slow-growth proponents.

"I feel real confident that these people have spent so much time and blood, sweat and tears on this, that it can't help but be good legislation," Wilhide says.

But John Taylor, leader of the most vocal group of anti-growth activists, attributes the lack of reaction to the timing of the proposal.

He says residents seeking tough restrictions on development already were trying to muddle through a recently released comprehensive zoning plan for western Howard County.

"They've done it again," says Taylor, president of Howard Countians for Responsible Growth, whose group will hold a meeting on the two plans tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. at Clarksville Elementary School. "They dropped both major proposals on us before the holidays. I can't allow my wife and children to become zoning widows."

The latest proposal, released Dec. 3, would prohibit new construction in areas where elementary schools are at least 20 percent over capacity, or where county roads are at least at 90 percent of capacity and state roads are at 100 percent or more.

It also would impose an excise tax that would raise about $2,800 on new single-family homes and $1,400 for new town houses. That money would go into a fund to help pay for capital improvements to support the new construction. Each dollar used from the tax fund would be matched by $2 in county capital expense money.

Taylor says he doesn't like the plan because it would halt construction in only three elementary school districts -- St. John's Lane, Bollman Bridge and Guilford.

"It shows [almost] all schools are open to development. That's utterly ridiculous," he says, adding that the 12-member commission that drafted the bill was dominated by developers.

Beltram, now an official of the Howard County Citizens Association, the county's largest civic group, says she still has qualms about the plan because it addresses only crowded elementary schools and not middle and high schools that are over capacity.

But overall, she says, "I would say this is a pretty good bill."

Maurice Kalin, an associate superintendent of county public schools who served on the commission, says the legislation would help school officials plan for new construction in a system that has had to shuffle portable classrooms around the county to accommodate spurts of elementary enrollment growth.

"What the adequate public facilities ordinance will do is provide predictability," says Kalin. "It will take out the peaks and valleys and make it much easier for us to project and provide facilities."

The county has opened four schools in the last three years and is scheduled to open three more -- one to replace the aging Elkridge Elementary -- this year. Six other schools, including a high school west of U.S. 29, are in the pipeline and expected to be completed by 1995. Elementary enrollment alone is expected to increase by 3,100 students by 1998.

Kalin says crowding in middle and high schools was not considered in the growth proposal as a compromise with developers who thought that would be too restrictive.

"If we would have tried to overlay elementary schools into middle schools [and] high schools, we would have to close down the county to development, which could have cost us jobs," he says.

Kalin insists, however, that education is the commission's top priority and that school planners could make accurate projections without using middle and high school enrollment.

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