Sprawl transforms Howard Co. corridor Growth defies master plan efforts to preserve farmland

February 23, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth and Craig Timberg | Dana Hedgpeth and Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

For two decades, Gail and Bruce Stoehr have been riding the westward wave of Howard County sprawl -- from Columbia to Clarksville to Broadwater Estates, a pricey subdivision along Route 32.

Now, even as Gov. Parris N. Glendening tries to launch his "Smart Growth" plan to curb sprawl, the Stoehrs are aiming to move west once more.

"They're trying to stop a ball that's already rolling," Bruce Stoehr, a 45-year-old architect, says of the governor's initiative.

That ball -- spreading development -- already has rolled through much of western Howard's Route 32 corridor, in spite of the county's long-standing goal of retaining the area's rural character.

"Western Howard County is what you want to avoid," says Ronald L. Young, the state planning official who has become Glendening's top spokesman on growth control.

But sprawl is spreading so rapidly through many of Maryland's once-rural areas that the governor may find it driven by forces stronger than his political might.

If current trends continue, Glendening says, development will consume 500,000 acres of the state in the next 25 years -- an area the size of Baltimore city and county combined.

His "Smart Growth" plan would try to direct that growth by focusing state aid on already developed areas. It would affect road construction, sewer and water lines, economic development incentives and some housing programs.

Glendening argues that an infusion of aid would make cities and older suburbs more appealing to homebuyers. Withholding aid from new road and sewer projects would keep home construction from sprawling ever farther.

At stake, the governor says, is nothing less than the state's economic and environmental future.

But if the Route 32 corridor is a guide, Glendening's program could have trouble taming sprawl -- now thriving on money and the American Dream.

"Americans like to have their big houses and their big lawns," says Douglas Porter, president of the Growth Management Institute in Bethesda. "They want to be sort of isolated from the low quality of life associated with the city. People have money, and they can afford to do that."

The Route 32 corridor wasn't supposed to have been filled with cul-de-sacs and mini-mansions. As recently as 1982, Howard County's general plan marked everything west of Columbia and Ellicott City as "rural conservation" to protect farms by limiting development.

But developers had already discovered the lure of homes built on rolling hills of former farmland. They have sold thousands in western Howard for $300,000 to $500,000 each.

Restrictive zoning

In the mid-1980s, there was an effort to slow that trend by imposing strict 20-acre rural zoning -- a tactic already used by Montgomery, Carroll and Baltimore counties to protect agricultural areas. But that plan unraveled when Howard farmers, arguing that the development potential of their land amounted to their life savings, vehemently opposed it.

A decade later, Route 32 retains some rural feel amid a shifting landscape of trees, homes and a few remaining farms. It's congested only at rush hour.

But a map of the area's lots looks like shattered glass: Nearly the entire corridor is broken into 3-acre parcels. Most are built. The rest soon will be.

Western Howard's 28,000 residents use about 35,000 acres of developed land -- more than an acre per resident. By contrast, eastern Howard's 200,000 residents live on 50,000 developed acres -- about a quarter-acre for each.

The Route 32 corridor's explosive growth happened in spite of Howard's policy -- expressed in decades' worth of master plans -- of preserving the area's rural character.

Howard did not build sewers there, did little road work and added schools only in response to surging enrollment. Howard's rural preservation program -- which Glendening's "Smart Growth" program would mimic -- has committed $110 million over the next 30 years to putting 17,000 acres of farmland into protective easements.

Cycle of sprawl

But western Howard's development hardly slowed. The reason? People with means to live almost anywhere decided to live there. Everything else followed -- according to the pernicious cycle of sprawl.

The cycle goes like this: Residents flee cities, then demand more roads and schools, which attract more residents, who demand more roads and schools. As older suburbs grow to resemble cities, some head still farther into undeveloped areas. And the cycle starts again.

Take the Stoehrs. They moved to Columbia in 1970 to escape College Park's growing crime and traffic. A decade later, they moved to Clarksville -- and then to Broadwater Estates, where they built a $500,000 "dream house," a 4,500-square-foot brick home on 3 acres off Route 32.

"When we lived in Columbia, I used to come home and have to wait to pull into my driveway until kids moved their bikes," Stoehr says. "Now, I come home and just zip right into my driveway. No hassles."

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