Uncapping a Furor

January 21, 1994

When the Howard County Council approved legislation to cap the rate of growth in the county two years ago, there was hope that its action would turn down the heat on this contentious issue. Unfortunately, passions have continued largely unabated and county officials and residents have been embroiled in one pitched battle after another ever since.

The new year may be no exception. The council is considering a new measure that will raise the cap on residential construction and, almost certainly, raise the ire of growth-control advocates.

Though we hesitate to imply that anything is simple in the thicket that passes for growth control in Howard County, the issue facing the council is relatively uncomplicated. The council will consider an administrative proposal to increase the number of homes it will allow to be built in 1997 from 2,500 to 2,890. Why? Officials say it is necessary to offset growth that was expected but will not occur in 1995 and 1996 because of the recent recession. Increasing the cap will allow growth to continue at a pace necessary to maintain an adequate increase in the county's tax base, without unduly burdening the county's infrastructure.

That should be enough to set most minds at ease. But as the past has shown, this is not a matter that will proceed quietly. Foes of the measured growth process have never been happy with the caps; most of them contend that the caps were set too high. And at least two County Council members last year questioned why their districts appear to shoulder more than a fair share of Howard's growth.

Republican Darrel Drown, who represents Ellicott City, and Democrat Shane Pendergrass, whose district includes Howard's southeastern quadrant, have previously wanted the cap held to 2,500 each year. They have yet to declare a position on the proposed increase in the cap, but the debate will likely center on their districts.

In essence, the proposal would increase the number of homes to be built in both districts, but only to make up for the shortfall in previous years. A less parochial approach -- one that would acknowledge what is best for the county as a whole -- may yet sway Mrs. Pendergrass and Mr. Drown. But this is an election year, when the electorate has its ear to the ground and elected officials are all the more sensitive about where they tread.

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