Developer exemption is debated Incoming council, executive will decide whether to extend it

November 02, 1998|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

One of the first issues that will face a new Howard County executive and council could have a long-term impact on the economic growth of the affluent jurisdiction.

An exemption from county law that expires in April has allowed dozens of corporate and industrial projects recorded before 1992 to be developed without them necessarily having to cover the costs caused by the additional traffic they bring.

Developers and public officials are debating whether the exemption from the traffic test of the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, designed during the last recession to create jobs, should be renewed.

The exemption could stimulate the development of lots dating from before 1992, bringing in new businesses. But it could also anger other developers and businesses that have to meet the traffic requirement.

"We're attracting more new jobs than any other county," says County Councilman Darrel E. Drown. "I think it's been a positive for the county."

Counters Lee Cunningham, president of a traffic engineering firm in Columbia and a member of a commission that drafted the adequate-facilities ordinance: "Given the way the market has changed, it's hard for me to say" if the exemption has been successful. "It's a question mark." he said.

It's unclear how many commercial lots qualified for the exemption, but projects such as Columbia Gateway, Corridor Industrial Park in Savage, and Meadowridge Business Park in Elkridge are among those that have taken advantage of it.

Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of the Rouse Co., which owns and developed Columbia Gateway, says the exemption has enhanced the county's image as an incubator for commercial development.

"The exemption creates additional choices for businesses, and for a company to come, you need choices," Scavo says. "Howard County is not just in competition with its next-door neighbors, but with other counties in the state."

The exemption looms as one of the first significant issues that will face the newly elected county executive and council.

With the impending departure of County Executive Charles I. Ecker -- who is prohibited from serving a third term -- and three of the five council members, including Drown, the pressure is on the next administration and council.

"This may be the most important issue they're dealing with," says Richard Story, executive director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

Howard County is one of only two jurisdictions in the Baltimore metropolitan region to ease the traffic test for commercial development. In Anne Arundel County, a commercial project for a single use -- anything from a shoe store to a large retailer -- does not have to submit a traffic study.

A business boost

Enacted April 10, 1992, the Howard exemption was designed to boost a struggling business economy hit hard by the recession.

At the time, the county had a 25 percent office vacancy rate -- one of the worst in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, says planning director Joseph W. Rutter Jr.

"In the depths of a recession, there was no employment development going on," he recalled. "The hope was that [the exemption] would pull us out of the recession."

Another rationale was that companies that had developed projects before the ordinance was adopted would balk at assuming any additional cost.

"Can you imagine someone who already improves a property and then the county comes back and says you have to improve intersections?" asks Jim Schulte, vice president of the Ellicott City-based Security Development Corp.

Schulte said a traffic study can cost about $5,000, and improvements, such as building additional traffic lanes, can cost several hundred thousand dollars.

Impact unknown

The impact of the exemption is unclear. Although the county leads other jurisdictions in the state with 27,152 new jobs since 1990, officials can't say how much of that is due to developers TC taking advantage of the exemption because officials have not kept track of the dozens of eligible lots.

But the county is slowly building a reputation as a business-friendly jurisdiction. Micros Systems Inc. and AlliedSignal will soon move into new office buildings -- costing $30 million and $20 million, respectively -- in Columbia Gateway.

U.S. Food Services is occupying a 100,000-square-foot office complex in the Patuxent Crossing Business Center in Columbia, and Bell Atlantic Mobile is preparing to move its Baltimore-Washington regional headquarters from Silver Spring to a 158,000-square-foot building in the Montpelier Research Park in Fulton.

Although there is no direct correlation between the number of new jobs and the exemption, Story says easing the traffic test could play a significant role in attracting businesses to Howard.

Streamlined process

"The last thing a company executive wants to do is make a commitment to a community and be surprised [that] there is another step in the [approvals] process," he says. "As a salesman for the county, I want as streamlined a process as possible."

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