Growth worries extend outward Older communities resist new housing

builders sprawl out

'Give us incentives'

Pressure for services rises as developers fill more rural areas

February 18, 1996|By Daniel H. Barkin | Daniel H. Barkin,SUN STAFF

The average size of the typical residential lot has grown by more than a third in Maryland since the mid-1980s, a reflection in part -- builders say -- of how difficult it has become to profitably develop higher-density housing that uses land more efficiently.

In 1985, the average residential lot size of parcels five acres and less in Maryland was 0.42 acres. But home construction between 1985 and 1993 was on parcels averaging 0.57 acres, a nearly 36 percent increase, according to the Maryland Office of Planning.

The state wants growth clustered around existing communities, protecting rural, agricultural areas from urbanization, and reducing the impact of development on the Chesapeake Bay.

But the growth in lot size shows that even the surge in new townhome sales in this decade has not been enough to offset the rapid transformation of outlying farmland into low-density subdivisions.

Suburban residents in counties surrounding Baltimore have fought high-density growth near them, forcing developers to buy land farther out. And without access to public water and sewer, these lots are generally larger than those in older communities.

The fear among state planning officials is that NIMBY -- "Not In My Backyard" -- anti-growth resistance combined with the movement of population out of Baltimore will continue the sprawl. Growth will keep leapfrogging, creating demand for new schools, roads and utilities where none are now planned, even as "inside-the-Beltway" services are underused.

These concerns were articulated by state officials at a symposium last week held by the Home Builders Association of Maryland, the trade group that represents builders, developers and apartment owners in the Baltimore region. The University of Baltimore event featured presentations by Ronald M. Kreitner, director of the state's planning office; Becki Kurdle, who heads the state planning commission; and Patricia J. Payne, secretary of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.

"We can no longer afford the luxury of sprawl," said Ms. Kurdle, a vice president at Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. subsidiary Constellation Real Estate Group.

She said that does not mean growth must be limited. "But it means being smart about it," she said.

However, builders and developers attending the symposium told the officials that a lack of adequate infrastructure in some designated growth areas, inflexible zoning laws that limit densities, and local anti-growth sentiment have combined to push construction farther out.

L. Earl Armiger, former president of the Maryland Builders Association -- the statewide trade group -- told officials during a question-and-answer session that "fast track" approval of developments, "density bonuses," transferable development rights and more flexible regulations on setback and other requirements would encourage building in older suburbs.

After the symposium, Mr. Armiger said the building industry supports what he called "smart growth," development in areas where infrastructure and services already exist. "We're as much in favor of that as anyone," he said.

Developers go out in rural areas to turn farms into new subdivisions because it's easier, a ready market exists, and they're more likely to make money, he said. In urbanized sections, local government regulations drive up costs by requiring wide streets with curbs and gutters, Mr. Armiger said. Also, land costs more, and without density bonuses and flexibility on setbacks, it's harder to make a profit, particularly when neighborhood opposition drags out the regulatory process and forces down the number of units that local officials will allow, he added.

More households

"We'd love to build in the designated growth areas," said Mr. Armiger. "You've got to give us incentives to do so."

According to state officials, there is more than enough developable land with access to public sewers. The number of Maryland households will increase by more than 633,000 over the next 25 years, state planners estimate. But with the zoning in place already, some 3 million additional homes can be built, according to Mr. Kreitner.

Around 1.4 million of those units can be built in areas where sewer lines are already installed. But more than 1.6 million can be built in areas where no sewer lines are planned, he told the symposium.

If most of the growth goes in the outlying areas without public sewerage, the state could be faced in coming decades with having to spend millions of dollars installing facilities as septic tanks fail.

Developer John Colvin, a member of the state planning commission and moderator of the symposium, said afterward that limiting sprawl requires a two-pronged approach. First, local government officials must be willing to stand up publicly for close-in, well-designed developments that meet all regulatory requirements.

Second, Maryland should create an easily accessed, statewide,

computerized market for development rights, he said. Rural landowners sell these rights to developers, who are able to build at higher densities in designated growth areas than zoning would normally allow.

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