Tighter Howard growth law proposed Councilman's plan could cut new homes by 2,220 in 3 years

September 09, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County, which has ridden a three-decade development boom to prosperity, is facing calls to tighten its 5-year-old growth law in ways that could prevent the construction of more than 2,000 new homes.

Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat considering a run for county executive next year, is proposing a one-quarter cut in the growth law's limits over the next several years.

The limit of 2,740 new housing units a year would drop to 2,000, eliminating 2,220 new homes in the next three years -- the likely life span of Gray's proposal.

Political rivals and developers were quick to cast the proposal as a strategic maneuver for Gray. But they were reluctant to immediately attack it -- a measure of how sensitive the growth issue has become with just a year until local elections.

"The games begin," said Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president for the Rouse Co., which built Columbia. "This happens every four years."

But Gray says it's simple economics.

For several years, residential growth has outpaced business growth in Howard, creating an imbalance in the tax base and a strain on the county's roads and schools and other services.

Fast housing construction has pumped cash into the county's large development community -- a politically connected web of developers, land-use lawyers and homebuilders.

But it has caused fiscal problems because homes rarely generate as much in taxes as they require in services, particularly from schools -- the largest expense for any local government.

The opposite is true for businesses and farmland, which end up subsidizing the bedroom communities that have swelled Howard County.

Many blame too-fast residential development for driving Howard's per-capita debt to the highest levels in the state.

Infrastructure 'burdened'

"We really are not keeping up with our infrastructure," Gray said.

L "Our infrastructure is really being burdened at this point."

Many residents agree, saying that heavy development imperils the very things -- good schools, roads and open space -- that drew them to Howard in the first place.

"It sounds like a good proposal," said William C. Smith, president of the Bonnie Branch/Ilchester Community Association. "It would allow our schools and our roads to catch up with the overdevelopment that's already taken place."

But growth control hasn't always been good politics, in part because money from the development community has helped bankroll the campaigns of many Howard politicians, including Gray. Former County Executive Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat widely favored to win a second term in 1990, lost to Republican Charles I. Ecker in part because of the business community's fury over a housing construction moratorium she imposed in 1989.

Incumbent is big winner

Four years later, Ecker, then the incumbent, crushed anti-growth lawyer Susan B. Gray -- no relation to Councilman Gray.

The council last debated growth this summer, when after wrenching discussions they agreed to correct an error in how county officials administered the 5-year-old growth law. Few disputed the error, but the debate was long and tortured, in part because the change meant faster home construction.

Gray's new proposal, likely to go to the county's Planning Board in October and the council in November, would lower the home construction targets in the 1990 General Plan, which dictates the limits set by the county's growth law.

Rutter is critical

Planning Director Joseph Rutter noted that developers have been building about 2,000 units a year since 1993, below the current limit.

Even so, Rutter criticized Gray's proposal, warning that it could destroy the predictability that both communities and developers have come to rely on. The council has been reluctant to tinker with the limits set in the growth law.

"In this political season, they could pick any number," Rutter said.

"It's really unfortunate."

Steve Breeden, a vice president with Security Development Corp. in Ellicott City, said developers have accepted the limits in the growth law because they allowed reliable planning.

"Once you start messing with one thing, it could affect another thing," he said. "The next thing you know, you open Pandora's Box."

Pub Date: 9/09/97

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