Howard eyes more growth through 2015 Suburban jurisdiction seen growing by 40%, to 309,400, in period

Some see 'gridlock city'

Uncertainty remains over effect of influx on area's quality of life

November 16, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

When the time came to buy a house, Bernardo Alferez and Sheila Mudd had the same checklist: reasonable price, pastoral setting, good schools.

Alferez, who lives in Upper Marlboro in Prince George's County and is looking for a home in Lisbon in western Howard County, says the area is just what he is looking for.

Nearly 15,000 people have moved to Howard from neighboring counties between 1990 and 1995.

Mudd, however, did not find a house she could afford to buy in Howard and is moving with her family from North Laurel to west Laurel, in Prince George's, making her like the 3,100 residents who migrated out of Howard during the same five years.

Decisions like those of Alferez and Mudd show what may lie ahead for Howard, a county of 231,280 residents that is in the middle of a growth spurt which could lead either to fulfillment of its destiny as a prosperous suburban region -- or destroy what makes the county so attractive.

According to a report from the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, which represents Baltimore and the five surrounding counties, Howard's population is expected to grow by about 40 percent -- from 220,000 in 1995 to 309,400 in 2015, the largest influx of residents in the region.

Officials of the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning, which provided the population projections to the council and worked with the group on the report, predict that a majority of those new residents will -- like Alferez -- come from neighboring counties.

Alferez, 58, said he grew tired of the development of Prince George's County, where he has lived since 1969.

"When I opened my business in the Upper Marlboro area, it was nice country -- like this," he said, pointing out the bay window of his Lisbon Circle Barbers shop. "There are people who want to get away from the rat race, and I'm one of those people."

Mudd said she feels the same way. Nevertheless, she, her husband, John, and their two children are moving from Howard to even more congested Prince George's because they cannot afford a single-family home here.

"Our preference would have been to find something comparable in Howard," said Mudd, 36. "But we were finding homes for our price range that weren't much bigger than our townhouse. We were finding that we got more for our money in Prince George's."

In Howard, the biggest question is how growth will alter the area. The answers are as varied as the people who offer them.

"If history is an indication, I think it's going to get worse," said William C. Smith, president of the Bonnie Branch/Ilchester Community Association and a slow-growth advocate. "We're looking at gridlock city."

Said John W. Taylor, former president of Howard Countians for Responsible Growth: "We can't grow by leaps and bounds and expect to preserve quality of life in the county."

Others are more optimistic.

"I think people perceive Howard County as a wonderful place with a lot of good things going for it," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker. "I think it will continue to be a desirable place."

Said developer Jim Schulte, vice president of Security Development Corp. in Ellicott City: "During the 1950s, there was no hospital in the county. There was only one shopping center on Route 40. There were no recreational programs, and the fire department was all-volunteer.

"We have come a long way, and people forget that it's because of growth," Schulte said.

Planning may not keep pace

County planners have sought to control growth by encouraging development of mixed-use centers -- villages with homes and businesses -- and creating cluster zoning, funneling residential development into dense pockets of homes, leaving large agricultural parcels around these enclaves.

But it's not clear that such measures will have much impact on the expected growth.

Using various data -- current zoning, building patterns, availability of land, building limitations and market demand -- the Department of Planning and Zoning predicts that the number of households in Howard will grow by about 50 percent, to 122,400, by 2015.

The surge will hit schools, where officials expect 8,000 more pupils in the 40,000-student system during the next 10 years, and roads, for which the county has a $624.6 million plan that includes widening U.S. 29, Route 32 and Interstate 95.

The strategies are to prepare for up to 309,400 residents by 2015, and then a population decline of 5,900 residents by 2020.

At that point, said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., Howard's planning director, all land zoned for residential growth will be developed.

"If the numbers say anything to us, it's that we have to be careful with how we develop what we have left," he said.

According to the estimates, the fastest growth will be in North Laurel, which is expected to expand by 21,100 residents by 2015.

Kay Armstrong Baker, president of the Howard County Association of Realtors, said she is concerned that homes in Howard County are too expensive for middle-class families.

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