Charles County proposes minimum housing size

Growth critics say measure won't ease suburban sprawl

November 15, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

LA PLATA -- Aiming to ease Charles County's growing pains by building more upscale housing, local officials are considering an unprecedented size requirement for new homes -- a move that is drawing fire from developers and community activists.

The commissioners of the rapidly growing Southern Maryland county have proposed requiring that detached, single-family homes have at least 1,650 square feet of floor space if they are to be built in the northern fifth of the county, which is designated for development.

"If you want high-paying jobs, you have to have high-quality housing and a high quality of life," says Murray D. Levy, a four-term Democrat who is chairman of the commissioners. That, he says, was the advice county officials received recently from a Towson University economist.

Housing size standards, to be reviewed today by the county's planning commission, have not been adopted anywhere else in Maryland, state planners say. Smart Growth advocates, meanwhile, say the measure is the wrong response to Charles County's scattershot development, which is gobbling up farmland and threatening one of the state's best fishing streams.

"How big the house is is not the problem," says Dru Schmidt-Perkins, head of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide group fighting suburban sprawl. "It's where the house is, and what infrastructure there is to serve it."

The proposed housing standards are the latest response by Charles officials to public grumbling over traffic congestion, crime and crowded, under-performing schools.

Last fall, the county imposed a five-month moratorium on new townhouses, followed in February by tough new requirements that have drastically slowed the pace of construction. The number of townhouse permits approved this year is down 75 percent from last year, while overall building is off by more than 20 percent.

Levy says the commissioners acted last year to resolve widespread complaints about cheap, shoddy townhouse construction and falling property values. While there have not been similar problems with detached homes, Levy says officials hope to prevent them by imposing size requirements and other standards to encourage more upscale housing.

"The standards we are enacting are not a big change," the commissioner insists. "We just want to make sure we don't have [developers saying], `Rack 'em and stack 'em, build them any way we can and toss them out on the market.' "

The commissioners originally proposed requiring that all new homes have at least 2,000 square feet of floor space, a minimum size that could have affected as many as a third of the houses being built. The limit was lowered to 1,650 square feet after a hearing at which advocates for the poor warned that the measure would hurt low-income families.

About 12 percent of the single-family building permits issued last year were for dwellings with fewer than 1,650 square feet, Levy said, but the proposal would affect a smaller share of the county's housing market.

Under the proposal, houses built in the rural three-fourths of the county without sewer service would not have to meet the size standards. Neither would senior-citizen housing nor dwellings built by nonprofit groups serving the poor.

Builders, who unsuccessfully filed suit to overturn the townhouse moratorium, argue that restrictions on housing size and type could undermine the county's efforts to broaden its economy.

"Without affordable, entry-level housing -- be it townhouses or single-family homes -- it is likely the children of this county will have to go somewhere else," says Dennis J. Makielski, chairman of Makielski Saba Corp., a Waldorf development firm.

Makielski says his firm cut its staff of 65 employees in the wake of the townhouse curbs, though he would not say by how much.

Community activists also contend that the county's development woes will be little helped by tinkering with housing quality. They complain that officials are pushing for sprawl-inducing highway construction and allowing development in rural, environmentally sensitive areas.

"It's entirely unplanned," George Wilmot, head of Citizens for a Better Charles County, says of the county's growth. "Whenever a developer can buy a big chunk of land, he comes in with his development plan and they approve it."

As an example of the county's development, activists point to the 500 homes planned for a wooded tract outside the county's designated growth boundaries. The parcel borders a fragile magnolia bog and the historic, 18th-century Araby estate.

The county should "just slow down, try to get the areas already developed up to standards and understand what we have at risk," says Bonnie Bick, a Bryans Road activist. "But as it is they're not thinking into the future."

Once the heart of Maryland's tobacco-farming region, Charles County has become increasingly suburbanized as development snaked down the highways from Washington, 18 miles away.

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