Quietly, Growth Management Works

COMMENT

April 30, 1995|By KEVIN THOMAS

Howard County's experiment with growth management is dTC approximately three years old and showing signs of success.

It is so successful, in fact, that the County Council is poised to consider only minor changes to the adequate public facilities legislation approved in 1992, which placed a cap on the number of housing units that can be constructed each year.

Under the current law, a formula determines the extent to which the county can absorb new development, primarily by looking at its impact on elementary schools.

The average number of new units that can be approved for building permits comes to around 2,500 a year.

But the impact of the formula wasn't felt during the first two years because the slump in the economy virtually stalled most development. This year, however, with the economy improving, the effects of the formula are clearly visible in those areas of the county that are most in need of growth control.

So far this year, builders have been denied permits for a total of 788 units. Most of these are in the densely populated Ellicott City and Elkridge areas.

By contrast, the county's southeast and west have a surplus of units yet to be allotted.

In the boom days of the 1980s, it was not uncommon for the number of units approved annually to reach 4,000.

This era of unbridled growth fueled a political firestorm in the county, one that lingered through last year's election when slow-growth advocate Susan Gray ran for county executive.

Yet Ms. Gray's defeat at the polls showed that the anti-growth movement had lost considerable steam by election day.

It was not just the slowdown in the economy that caused it. The county's attempts to control growth artificially were finally taking hold. County Executive Charles Ecker's reasoned approach was paying off.

Not that everyone has been pleased.

Some developers, none too surprisingly, have been critical of the annual cap, although they have wisely not tried aggressively to do anything about it.

While individual developers have asked that the restrictions be lifted, the county's Homebuilders Association has taken a more practical position by asking for only minor amendments to the legislation.

"We are realistic," says Pam Sarota, vice president and chairman of the association's legislation committee. "Nobody wants to see unbridled growth in the county. There isn't a market for it.

But we also don't want to give those complaining a reason to complain."

Catching nearly everyone off guard, when the county held hearings recently to consider amendments, not only was Susan Gray absent but so was her ideological colleague, John Taylor, ++ who lost his bid for a seat on the County Council last year.

But Ms. Gray and Mr. Taylor have always approached the adequate public facilities issue with a curious ambivalence.

It's no wonder, because the legislation clearly deflates their argument that the county still allows growth to rage out of control.

Not that development in Howard County doesn't continue to strain public services.

Moreover, there are those who feel that not enough is being done, particularly when it comes to the crowding in some schools.

But most parties agree that the county's current policy at least makes local growth predictable.

Public officials and builders alike seem to appreciate the fact that the current system allows them to plan for the future without the fear a sudden upswing in the economy will put a new strain on resources.

So when the County Council meets tomorrow, it will be considering only minor technical changes to the adequate facilities legislation.

One change will make it more difficult for large developers to hoard building permits at the expense of smaller companies, while the other change will allow only tentative allocations for permits on large parcels of land.

Judging by the lack of controversy generated by these amendments, the council should have no trouble approving the changes without fanfare.

Given what growth control has already accomplished, it's no surprise that officials want to do as little tinkering as possible.

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

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