Need for Mixed Use Won't Go Away

COMMENT

December 20, 1992|By KEVIN THOMAS

Elizabeth Bobo must be beside herself with glee.

Having had her reputation sullied and the county executive's job ripped from under her by no-growth advocates two years ago, Ms. Bobo has a right to be ecstatic as she watches the Republicans who unseated her unravel over comprehensive rezoning and the management of growth in Howard County.

Take, for example, County Councilman Charles Feaga's break from the ranks last week, when he took a knife to County Executive Charles Ecker's growth plan by openly opposing proposed mixed-use developments in the county.

Never mind that mixed-use development is the cornerstone of the administration's proposal for controlling growth and encouraging economic development, or that Messrs. Feaga and Ecker are of the same, Republican, party.

No, Mr. Feaga had a higher goal in mind: his own re-election two years from now.

That may seem to be merely an example of a good politician's doing what his constituents want.

However, Mr. Feaga's action is not only irresponsible, it shows how cavernous is the void left by Mr. Ecker, who has failed to show leadership as far as the growth issue is concerned.

And since Mr. Ecker won't say it loud and clear, I will.

Howard County cannot yield to the misguided self-interests of no-growth advocates who are hell bent on bringing all development to a halt, regardless of the consequences. And the consequences are significant.

Howard County needs to attract new business. If Howard County won't do it, some other jurisdictions will.

The county derives 22 percent of its accessable base from commercial entities. Mr. Ecker wants to increase that to a healthier 25 to 30 percent.

The only way to do that is to create the kind of environment that business people find attractive. Usually that means a mix of housing types at various prices and in close proximity to the jobs being created. But it also means good schools and a good infrastructure, all of which cost money.

Right now, the county can count on getting 77 percent of its revenues from residential development. Under Mr. Ecker's plan, that percentage would be reduced by having the business sector pick up a bigger portion of the price tag.

County Planning Director Joseph Rudder is only partially right when he says: "The choice of doing nothing is not one of the choices." Actually, the county could do nothing to encourage growth in Howard. But the end result would be that residents would be under increased pressure to choose between higher taxes and fewer services, neither of which they appear willing to accept.

Mr. Ecker's mixed-use zoning plan is, in a sense, a safety valve that could keep taxes at a reasonable level, while providing the kinds of services Howard countians seem to want. The problem is that Mr. Ecker hasn't mounted a real effort to sell his program.

The county executive knows full well that a no-growth posture for the county will not only not attract new business, it is likely to drive away existing businesses as the corporate community discovers that Howard is no longer hospitable to its needs.

Also, despite the good reputation of its schools, Howard County suffers in the eyes of the business community because it lacks affordable housing.

As much as top-level executives like the plethora of housing in the $300,000-and-up range, they know that a majority of their workers cannot afford Howard County's high-priced homes.

For 25 years, Howard County has relied on Columbia to fuel improvements to county services by absorbing most of the growth. During that period, 50 percent of the county's expansion occurred in Columbia, which represents only 10 percent of the county's land mass. People need to be reminded that for all the bashing Columbia gets from the no-growth faction, it is because of the success of that city -- a planned, mixed-use community -- that Howard enjoys the prosperity and level of services it has today.

Also, it is more than a little disingenuous for those who have helped cause the growth that has occurred in Howard County during the last decade to want to close the door now that they are safely ensconced within.

There is, of course, a lot of irony in the position in which Mr. Ecker finds himself. His natural constituents as a Republican are the people who scream loudest about "no new taxes." Unfortunately for Mr. Ecker, they also scream the loudest about no growth. Mr. Ecker needs to convince them that they can't have it both ways.

The alternative is for a majority of county residents to be adversely affected by a vocal minority, many of whom live in mini-mansions on three-acre lots and do not have the interest of the county as a whole at heart.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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