Suburban sprawl hits Md.'s land of the free Growth: As Garrett faces increasing development, state law is forcing the county to place limits on what can be built -- and how.

June 24, 1996|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND -- Steve and Flora Dirlik found their idyllic vacation retreat 200 miles from home, on 5 wooded acres in the mountains of Garrett County. But the Silver Spring couple didn't go far enough to escape the problems of suburbia.

Traffic on their gravel road is increasing. Someone broke into their log cabin. The deer, bear and beaver that were once their neighbors are fleeing to a nearby state park.

And the Dirliks wonder whether the flow of Baltimore and Washington suburbanites to the county will ever end. "I'd like to see a way to stop the growth," Flora Dirlik says.

Hers is one voice in a debate over managing growth in this rural, independent-minded county -- the only one in Maryland without comprehensive zoning laws.

Prompted by state law, Garrett County is developing an ordinance that would manage growth by limiting the number of new houses on a parcel. At the same time, the county is adopting another cornerstone of urban planning -- a building code to ensure the quality of construction.

But those who buy vacation property near Deep Creek Lake and Wisp Ski Resort oppose plans to control the sizes of their lots. Farmers want assurances that growth limits won't lower land values. County leaders fear restrictions that could harm the fragile economy. And many residents resent the state-mandated laws as outside interference.

"It's just big government getting its foot in there and twisting, twisting, twisting," says H. Wayne Wilt, a county commissioner.

Opponents of the new laws question whether such restrictions are needed in a county where 20 percent of the land is safeguarded by state parks and only 300 houses are built each year.

Yet supporters of growth controls worry that Garrett's forests and farmland are being gobbled up by vacation and retirement homes. Between 1973 and 1990, the county lost more than 6,000 acres to development, and the population is expected to increase by 7 percent from 28,100 in 1990 to 30,100 by the year 2000.

Growth regulation has been controversial in the county for decades. In 1972, the County Commission was forced to repeal a month-old law regulating growth after an outcry from the development community.

Today, the only county growth restrictions are zoning laws around Deep Creek Lake and in seven of the county's eight towns. But as that land has grown more expensive and crowded with development, homebuyers increasingly have sought refuge in the thick, rolling forests, says Ruth Huebner Seib, general manager of Coldwell Banker Deep Creek Realty in McHenry.

These homebuyers, she says, usually come to her office with one requirement: "It's expected that they're out of sight of neighbors."

Garrett and Penny Power, who live in Roland Park, bought 10 acres on a bluff overlooking the Youghiogheny River, which they use for camping and family reunions. "The appeal and attraction of this particular site is the isolation and privacy," Garrett Power says.

Power, a University of Maryland at Baltimore law professor who specializes in property rights, says freedom from controls is one of Garrett's attractions. "One of the refreshing things is the absence of regulations. I very much enjoy being able to make the choices myself."

But he acknowledges the flip side of having no growth controls: "Of course, you might not like your neighbor's tastes and choices."

So far, Garrett's sprawl isn't obvious to the casual observer. But signs at the entrances to gravel roads are clues that the woods are inhabited by creatures other than black bears and whitetail deer. Here, in communities with names such as Timbers on the Yough and Highlands of Bear Creek, suburbanites have bought chunks of forest ranging from 2 to 20 acres for their dream homes.

Garrett County doesn't plan to regulate the kind of structure that can be built outside the towns and lake watershed. But the county is considering limiting the number of houses a developer could build and might regulate how those houses would be positioned. In a county where unemployment is almost twice the state average, officials stress the need to balance growth controls against the need to encourage economic development.

Details of the laws are still being worked out. Bill Elliott, an Oakland civil engineer and member of a task force reviewing the building code, expects the group to recommend few changes in construction standards and focus on devising enforcement measures that aren't too burdensome.

The subdivision ordinance, meanwhile, is likely to divide county land into three categories: rural, growth and environmentally sensitive areas. Housing densities would range from one house per 2 or 3 acres in rural areas to six houses per acre in town centers. In each area, developers would be encouraged to cluster houses to conserve more land for agriculture or open space.

The proposal is far less restrictive than growth laws in Baltimore's suburbs. Baltimore County, for example, limits the development of agriculture land to one house per 50 acres.

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