Charles Co. decides to halt construction of townhouses Commissioners vote a 6-month moratorium to curb development

September 23, 1998|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

LA PLATA -- Trying to cope with runaway development, Charles County's commissioners voted yesterday to halt all townhouse construction for six months while they tighten building standards and raise fees on developers to ease school overcrowding.

"People are angry and have a right to be," said Murray D. Levy, president of the five-member Board of Commissioners. "I mean, growth is not working for us right now and when that happens, I think government has a responsibility to step in."

The commissioners' unanimous vote, however, drew an angry reaction from the county's builders and developers, who warned that the townhouse moratorium would deal a severe blow to Charles' largest industry. They vowed to go to court to keep building projects already approved by the government.

"This is an abuse of power to eliminate growth in a county that is in serious transition," said Dennis J. Makielski, chairman of Makielski Saba Corp., a Waldorf development firm specializing in townhouse construction.

Makielski said his firm may have to lay off some of its 65 employees if it cannot build 116 townhouses in two subdivisions that have been approved by the county.

"My personal opinion is, this is an election-year ploy," said Linda Wise, a real estate agent who has worked with developers. Other real estate agents, however, support the townhouse ban because resales of existing homes are sluggish.

The Charles townhouse moratorium is the latest manifestation of public discontent over sprawling development in Maryland's suburbs, said John W. Frece, an aide to Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

He noted that Harford County citizens have petitioned a referendum on the November ballot to halt all development there for a year. Growth is an issue in local elections in other counties DTC as well, he said, from Carroll to Worcester.

"What's going on in Charles County demonstrates the need for our Smart Growth program, or certainly a program that aims at smarter growth," said Frece. The state's Smart Growth program aims to focus development in already developed areas.

Charles is by no means the fastest-growing county in the state, but its population has increased at twice the rate of the state's as a whole since 1990 -- 14 percent growth in Charles vs. about 6.5 percent statewide. The county has about 119,500 residents.

"They're building a bedroom community," Frece said. "It's not a balanced community. There's no jobs where people live."

Levy, a three-term commissioner who is seeking countywide re-election as president, said he and other commissioners are reacting to public anger over the quantity and quality of townhouse construction in the county.

There has been a surge this year in the number of applications to build townhouses, while residents are complaining of shoddy construction and an inability to sell the existing units. Townhouses accounted for 24 percent of the building permits issued last year, and the number proposed this year is higher.

In the heavily developed Waldorf area, the property values of 59 percent of all homes -- not just townhouses -- are declining, according to the county's Planning Office. Even without falling values, residential development -- especially townhouses and apartments -- fails to raise enough in tax revenues to pay for local services, officials say.

Richard S. Lennon Jr. is one of the angry residents to whom Levy referred. Lennon, a 57-year-old civil servant, said he bought a townhouse in Waldorf almost 10 years ago

"The first Christmas I was in the townhouse," Lennon said, "I remember cooking our Christmas dinner with a rug wrapped around my feet because they were numb from the cold air coming in through cracks under the walls and at the joints." He had trouble selling the townhouse later because builders were offering steep discounts on newer units nearby.

"I feel the commissioners have done a courageous thing, and I hope they will go on to look at development as a whole," Lennon said.

County officials are trying to draw higher-paying jobs into Charles, Levy said. The commissioners have approved a $500,000 loan package, job retraining at the community college and $3 million for sewer lines to serve a new industrial park.

But opponents warn that the moratorium may sabotage any efforts to boost the county's economy. "It sends a very bad message to employers," said Warren Barley, head of a development firm, "that the county can't manage its affairs well enough."

Pub Date: 9/23/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.