Restrictions sought as development obliterates scenery


August 08, 1993|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff Writer

FALLSTON — Fallston--From a grassy knoll on his family's thoroughbred breeding farm, Josh Pons fixes his gaze on open fields where foals trot each spring and cornstalks stretch in neat rows down to Winters Run.

Little has changed on this Harford County landscape since his grandfather settled Country Life Farm during the Depression. But the 38-year-old Mr. Pons, whose family lives on one of the last working farms in and around Bel Air, has seen many other fields transformed into housing developments and malls.

"What little scenery is left of the Route 1 corridor is a pleasure, but when it's gone, it'll be gone forever. That's what worries me," said Mr. Pons, who is married and has a 2 1/2 -year-old son.

In the view of Mr. Pons and some elected officials, residents and planners, Harford County is at a crossroads.

Will areas targeted for development become as urbanized as Towson or Glen Burnie?

Already, a migration from the Baltimore area has created problems in Harford County. Mismatched strip development lines thoroughfares, heavy traffic snarls roads around Bel Air, and the county must build about one school a year for the next decade just to meet the demands of new homes.

Or will new restrictions slow sprawl and bring more palatable development for the 30,000 new homes the county expects by 2010?

The county has restricted development to limit school crowding, and recently began taxing real estate transfers to help pay for school construction and farm preservation. County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann also is enlisting county residents to come up with development alternatives.

The controversy began in the 1980s, when the lure of affordable homes, low crime rates and plenty of open space drew thousands of people to Harford County. More than 32,000 Baltimore County residents and another 16,000 from the city moved there during the decade.

To make room for the new residents, developers cleared more than 12,000 acres for homes, stores and office buildings during the last half of the decade. Since 1986, the county has issued permits to build more than 18,000 homes. More than 4,000 single-family homes, townhouses and apartments went up in two major developments, Riverside and Constant Friendship.

But the county struggled to build roads and schools, to expand sewer capacity, and to carve out land for parks. "People were overwhelmed -- it happened so rapidly," said Jan Stinchcomb, of Abingdon, a 37-year-old artist who has lived in Harford since high school.

The boom led to grass-roots battles against development -- and the 1990 election of five new County Council members in a wave of anti-growth sentiment. "There was a lot of anger, a feeling that we're out of control, schools with six and seven portable [classrooms], and nothing slowing it down," said Theresa M. Pierno, a County Council member who moved to Harford in 1985 and helped lead a fight against a regional shopping mall.

The rapid influx of new residents and the ensuing boom in malls and shopping centers has swallowed up much of the open space in the 55,000-acre "development envelope" where the county has channeled growth since 1977.

And the development pressure continues. Home prices still remain the lowest in the metropolitan region -- $143,000 for the median price of a new home. And sales outpaced those in other suburban counties in the first six months of 1993.

In recent years, county officials have taken measures to slow the pace of development.

The county restricted any construction that would lead to school overcrowding within three years. Harford also limited development in areas lacking adequate water or sewer service and in June began requiring builders to pay for sewer service. And it's expected to force builders to pick up part of the tab for road improvements.

Controversial measure

Perhaps the most controversial measure took effect July 1, when Harford began charging a 1 percent tax on real estate transfers. Proceeds will be split between school construction and preservation of some of the county's remaining 100,000 acres of farmland.

Meanwhile, County Executive Rehrmann is forming 10 citizen councils to help devise alternatives to "cookie-cutter" developments that are short on open space and trees. The county now requires builders to save 30 percent of the trees on a building site. But the need for better planning is critical, she says.

Builders, though, say growth-control measures such as the transfer tax and higher costs for building permits, sediment control and water and sewer hookups boost home prices. Affordable Harford, they warn, risks becoming an elite suburb, where working-class people and first-time buyers no longer can afford homes.

Housing prices rise

Government measures taken during the past three years have added at least $4,000 to the average price of a new home, says Paul E. Lynch Jr., president of the Harford chapter of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

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