Gray's revised slow-growth plan still draws fire He also seeks change in Density Exchange Option

October 23, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

County Councilman C. Vernon Gray has revised his proposal designed to slow growth in the county, but the idea is still drawing fire from planning officials and developers.

Gray's proposal would decrease the limit of 2,740 new residential units a year to 2,500. His original plan, offered last month, called for a cap of 2,000 new homes annually, though that could rise by as much as 20 percent provided any increase in one year was made up by reductions in subsequent years.

Gray, a Democrat, has also proposed increasing the home-to-acre ratio of the Density Exchange Option program -- designed to preserve farmland in the western part of the county by allowing farmers to sell their development rights -- from one home per 2 gross acres to one home per 3 gross acres.

The county Planning Board will review the proposals during a public meeting at 9: 30 a.m. today in the Ellicott Room of the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

Even with the changes, the county's Department of Planning and Zoning and developers argue that Gray's slow-growth legislation is misguided and unnecessary.

"Maryland has stopped growing," said Jim Schulte, vice president of Security Development Corp. in Ellicott City. "It's the market that dictates what we can do. I think this may be an exercise in politics."

The Department of Planning and Zoning submitted two technical staff reports asking that the Planning Board recommend denial of both amendments.

Gray says his residential-units proposal is not about gaining votes, but gaining the upper hand in residential development that has grown out of control.

The contention is that residential growth is outpacing business growth in Howard, causing an imbalance in the tax base and a burden on the county's roads, schools and other public services.

County planners have said a single-family home must be worth more than $300,000 for it to generate enough in property tax revenues to offset the public services its residents use.

Conversely, businesses pay more in taxes than they receive in public services, offsetting the deficit caused by homes.

Gray said he is concerned that not enough is being done to encourage business development, which makes up 19 percent of the county's tax base -- short of the 25 percent that is the goal of many county officials.

"We need to increase our commercial base," Gray said. "If we let the residential base grow at this rate, we're never going to achieve a good balance."

Developers point out that, even as they cater to a burgeoning market that is consistently looking for new homes, figures show that about 2,000 residential units have been built in the county each year since 1993 -- below the proposed cap.

"We're still not maxing out," said Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of the Rouse Co., which built Columbia and is seeking county approval for a miniature version of the planned community in North Laurel. "Technically, everything is working fine and we're still below the cap. I'm not sure what [the amendment] accomplishes."

William C. Smith, president of the Bonnie Branch/Ilchester Community Association, said he thinks the amendment is too lenient.

"I thought having it at 2,000 was a more reasonable number because it gave us a chance to catch up in terms of roads and schools," said Smith, who pointed out that during the past five years, three elementary schools have opened in the area. "What's the big deal about 2,500?"

Gray's other amendment targets the county's Density Exchange Option program, which allows developers to buy the development rights of farmers to build larger subdivisions in exchange for the preservation of farmland.

The program permits developers to build one house per 2 gross acres received through the program. Gray's legislation would increase that requirement to one house every 3 gross acres.

Gray said he is worried that developers are abusing the intent of the exchange program, which permits developers to include wetlands and flood plains as parts of the formula for determining the number of homes.

"If they couldn't use that for original development, how can they use them as buildable lots in other subdivisions?" Gray said. "Why should that be counted?"

County Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. said that if passed, the density-exchange amendment would apply to any preliminary development plan not approved by Sept. 8.

For example, the legislation would cut the number of houses developer Chuck Sharp wants to build on a 240-acre site in Dayton by one-third. Sharp, a well-known west county farmer who was unavailable for comment, has proposed building almost 100 homes at Big Branch Overlook at Howard and Triadelphia Mill roads.

That plan has drawn protests from residents, who say the new community would cram too many houses onto former farmland.

Donald Reuwer, president of Land Design and Development in Columbia, said he thinks the amendment could backfire because, since it limits the development rights a developer can buy, it might make farmers turn to development to make money.

"People who want to sell their development rights won't be able to," Reuwer predicted. "I think more farms are going to be developed because there's no market for them to sell their rights."

John W. Taylor, former president of the Howard Countians for Responsible Growth, said he prefers getting rid of the exchange program entirely because it encourages development.

"One per 3 [acres] is better than one per 2," acknowledged Taylor, a controlled-growth activist. "Getting rid of the DEO is the best bet in my opinion."

Pub Date: 10/23/97

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