Builder pushes higher-density homes that maintain quality, affordability Troutman urges rethinking of policy HOWARD COUNTY BUSINESS

December 17, 1992|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

The new president of the Howard chapter of a Maryland home builders association says housing can be built at higher densities that reduce home costs without sacrificing quality of life.

"It's a conscious policy decision that lies with elected government officials," says John Troutman, who was elected by peers as Howard chapter president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland (HBAM) for 1993.

"I think higher density can be done in almost any jurisdiction in the United States, if the planning is there."

HBAM is a nonprofit association that functions as a construction industry advocate. The central Maryland organization has representatives that lobby local government in eight jurisdictions.

Mr. Troutman, president of Columbia-based Troutman Co., says one of the chapter's main goals is to continue to work with Howard government to keep home prices affordable, which will require compromises in regulations and legislation. Over the last few years, HBAM has turned a "very adversarial relationship" with county government into one with "mutual understanding of goals," he says.

Mr. Troutman, whose development firm specializes in building town houses and condominiums, says he understands the need for laws and regulations protecting the environment and ensuring that developments meet certain standards. But that must be balanced with the "needs of the populace to have housing," he says.

"When you make it too hard to build housing, you'll see prices skyrocketing," he says. "We can only build what people are willing to buy. Otherwise we'd be out of business."

The Howard chapter supports proposals that would create a new higher density residential land-use category allowing three homes per acre, and a mixed-use district that would allow houses, apartments, offices and commercial uses in the same area.

Those issues are being debated as part of the comprehensive rezoning of the eastern county.

Mr. Troutman worked for the Rouse Co., where he helped plan and build the Long Reach Village Center and develop the Village of Owen Brown, before starting his own company in 1975. The 48-year-old Clarksville resident has a degree in civil engineering from Yale University and a master's degree in business administration from Stanford University.

He has led the HBAM Howard chapter's strategic planning committee, which evaluates public policy and land-use issues and their effect on development.

"John is a builder and a developer, and that gives him important insight," says Joe Firetti, the outgoing chapter president and owner of Firetti Builders Inc. "He's a bright guy with a lot of intuition.

"He'll call a spade a spade. That's the way he is. If something is not to our liking, he's not going to shirk from it."

Although HBAM's primary purpose is to protect the business interests of its members, that mission can also mesh with a community's interests, says Mr. Troutman, adding that many members live, as well as work, in the county.

"We're in this business because it's our livelihood," he says. "We get out of it not only the ability to make money, but hopefully some sense of self-satisfaction by building a desirable environment for our neighbors and people here in Howard County to live in.

"That could be $1 million homes, but we prefer to reach down further into the economic spectrum and build comfortable, affordable environments for a greater portion of the population."

The market in Howard County now is stronger for townhouses and condominiums than for large single-family homes on large lots, which were in high demand in the mid- to late 1980s, Mr. Troutman says.

But it is becoming more and more difficult to build for the starter-home market and keep it affordable in Howard, he says.

Strong anti-growth sentiment, increased environmental and construction regulation and a short supply of land designated for townhouses, condominiums and apartments are obstacles to building more affordable housing, he says.

Building rental apartments in Howard is a money-loser because costs exceed returns, Mr. Troutman says.

Allowing increased housing densities, which also could increase open space, is a "sociological issue," he says.

HBAM will monitor proposed changes in the county's zoning and subdivision regulations, and affordable housing bills that would require developers to build a certain percentage of moderately priced units in projects, he says.

"Sometimes things sound good when they're proposed," he says, but are difficult to evaluate without an analysis showing the impact on housing costs.

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