Development Fight Off to a Bad Start


September 04, 1994|By Brian Sullam

Most Carroll residents probably don't know that their county will be the scene of a titanic battle during the next four years.

On one side will be the county's developers, home builders and landowners. On the other side will be long-time residents, newly arrived residents, a handful of farmers and the county's small band of environmentalists.

The battle will be over the speed of the county's residential development.

Population growth is inevitable. By the end of the decade, Carroll's population is currently projected to be about 150,000 people -- or 20,000 more people than now live here.

We are also in a period of economic expansion.

For developers and home builders, the combination of these ingredients means a building boom right here in Carroll County.

Having survived the last recession, the residential development community is straining at the bit to make up for the lost opportunities of the past four years. It recognizes that a window of opportunity exists that may close very quickly and may take years to reopen.

This realization may explain, in part, the sorry spectacle at last week's meeting of the Hampstead Planning Commission, which rammed through approvals for another 509 units. The commission ignored a request by the town council to impose a moratorium on building until the town could form a committee to study its options to develop the roads, schools and water supplies to accommodate this large development.

From all appearances, the planning commission decided it would ignore the wishes of the town's elected council to do the bidding of Martin K. P. Hill, the developer of Section IV of North Carroll Farms. Commission Chairman Art Moler's refusal even to include the letter requesting the moratorium on the commission's agenda was a transparent attempt to avoid a serious discussion of the implications of this development.

In addition, refusing to have any public comment before reaching a decision is not the way a democratically run town should operate. But civic principles were apparently expendable because of the large amounts of money at stake.

This meeting is but a preview of what's to come in other parts of the county. With large sums at stake, developers don't want to hear about slow growth, controlled growth, moratoriums or any other government effort to limit their ability to build. Pressure to open the development floodgates will be felt at the county office building and in every town hall.

Candidates running for election this year all mention controlling development as a major issue. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to stand up to developers once they are elected, or in some cases, re-elected.

Developers, home builders and landowners have deep pockets and have always contributed to political candidates. After taking this special-interest money, many elected officials feel obligated take care of their supporters.

Adding to the development pressure is the deep-grained belief that people have a right to the maximum return on their property.

Last week, I had a revealing discussion with a small developer who said that the county had "no right" to limit developers to building only one lot for every three acres in conservation-zoned land. He pointed out that plenty of existing one-acre lots had been grandfathered into the conservation zones when the county adopted its comprehensive master plan in 1964. He said he saw no reason for keeping the three-acre limit.

He then related a story about an aging farmer who owns about 100 acres but is unable to make any money growing crops. The developer said the farmer should be able to get more than the allotted five lots out of his land. He should be able to divide his land into one-acre lots, the developer contended, even though county ordinances now require that residential lots must be about 20 acres in agricultural zones.

Many other developers and land owners have the same thoughts.

The county is exhausting its supply of residentially zoned land. So far there has been a reluctance to rezone large tracts of agriculture- and conservation-zoned land, but control over land use is being chipped away.

The county commissioners' approval of a plan to allow farmers to build houses on the so-called "hangover" parcels is a good example of the county's strong agricultural zoning being subverted. Hangover parcels are parcels of farm land created when a new road divides a large tract.

The commissioners are sympathetic when farmers say these PTC small parcels are not economical to farm and should be developed. The economics of farming are difficult, and it is quite reasonable for the commissioners to feel that they should help farmers whenever they can. However, at present, no one seems to know how many new residential lots were created by the approval. Neither do we know where these hangover plots will create a beachhead for further encroachments on agricultural land.

Elected officials will have to make some tough calls during the next four years. How they stand up to the pressure is a question every voter must take seriously.

One can only hope they will do a better job than Hampstead's planning commission.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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