Officials prepare for vote on building moratorium Commissioners study experience of Howard County

April 21, 1996|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The County Commissioners are not likely to have a respite from controversy anytime soon.

On Thursday, they proposed raising the property tax rate 27 cents to $2.62 for every $100 of assessed value. This week, they are expected to decide whether to adopt a controversial 18-month ban on new subdivisions.

Builders, bankers and business people oppose the proposed ban, saying it augurs the same kind of upheaval -- bankruptcies, layoffs and political reversals of fortune -- that befell Howard County after it imposed a similar measure in 1990.

But residents fearing runaway growth, especially in South Carroll, say a temporary ban is necessary to give the county time to come to grips with school crowding, increasing traffic and loss of farmland.

In preparing for Thursday's vote, the commissioners have cast an eye to Howard County, seeking clues about potential pitfalls and how to avoid them. Despite its early problems, Howard is now touted as a model of growth management.

But Joseph W. Rutter Jr., Howard planning director, warns that it would be a mistake to draw anything other than broad parallels.

"The situation in Howard is very different from Carroll," he said. "For one thing, we don't have any incorporated municipalities in Howard. In Carroll, they have eight, each with different regulations."

Howard's building moratorium came after the drafting of its General Plan rather than at the beginning, as is proposed in Carroll.

Howard officials saw the freeze as a way to ease into the 1990 General Plan, which was radically different from previous strategies. Planners decided the county could not sustain growth at the rate of 4,100 new homes a year even if money were no object.

The initial task, therefore -- and one Mr. Rutter recommends that Carroll imitate -- was to decide the mix of new homes and new jobs needed each year to sustain the county's quality of life.

Finding a compromise

Howard planners decided the ideal would be 2,500 new homes and 2,800 new jobs. But they feared that developers would panic Xwhen they learned that housing starts would be cut almost in half. The answer: an 18-month moratorium on new building permits.

Meanwhile, three County Council members announced a plan to increase minimum lot sizes in western Howard County from 3 acres to 20 acres.

The proposal was never introduced but it nevertheless scared farmers and developers, and when word of the proposed moratorium leaked out, developers rushed in with requests for building permits.

The rush was on

It led to a contradictory situation in which the planning office tried to halt building permits while the permit office across the hall worked overtime to issue them.

The crush was so great that many large firms assigned employees to wait in line and gobble up permits. Smaller builders were shut out. Many went bankrupt -- and they were not alone.

In order not to lose permits, builders had to put foundations in the ground. And that meant borrowing from banks. Repayment was to come from sales. But when the nation entered a recession, the sales slowed.

Tensions reached a breaking point when a County Council member asked plainclothes police to staff several public hearings.

Police at hearings

Unidentified police blocked the doors at the main hearing on the growth measure, often manhandling residents or builders who sought to enter the packed hearing room. When one builder -- a longtime county resident and civic leader -- pushed past them as he was called to testify, police arrested him.

County Executive M. Elizabeth Bobo was defeated in the 1990 election and her planning director was fired. Ms. Bobo's successor, Carroll County native Charles I. Ecker, ended the moratorium early, saying it no longer was needed because of the recession.

'A fiasco'

In retrospect, the moratorium was "a fiasco," Mr. Rutter said. One of the lessons learned, he said, is to never impose a building ban unless water and sewer service is imperiled.

In 1991, Mr. Ecker appointed a group of builders, planners, school board officials, slow-growth activists, civic leaders and the county attorney and ordered it to work out a growth-management plan.

After meeting weekly for slightly more than a year, the group produced the compromise growth-control measure now used in Howard.

Although Mr. Rutter thinks Howard's plan is a good one, he said it is the process of building consensus that is important.

It is a strategy he recommends for Carroll.

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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