Public water, sewerage won't be expanded west

No proposal on agenda to handle more growth, planning director says

March 22, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Anti-growth activists in Howard County can breathe a sigh of relief.

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, says the agency is no longer considering expanding the county's public sewer and water service, which marks the boundary between rural western Howard and the not-so-rural eastern part.

"There will not be a proposal to expand the planned service area into the west for the purposes of accommodating additional growth," he said.

Because it is more expensive to develop land not connected to public sewer and water, Rutter's announcement is considered good news for those who want to prevent sprawl from engulfing farms and fields in western Howard.

"It's a big relief," said Bill Woodcock, president of the Howard County Citizens Association. "Any expansion of the planned service area would mean Smart Growth, at least in Howard County, really didn't mean that much and really didn't have any teeth. From a quality-of-life perspective, I think expanding the PSA [planned service area] would have had a horrible effect on the community and would further strain already strained roads and public services."

Woodcock said citizens can focus less on the threat of growth and more on other issues such as environmental action, regional cooperation and community revitalization.

Rutter made his announcement Monday night to the General Plan Task Force, a 34-member citizen group chosen by County Executive James N. Robey to help create the 2000 General Plan.

Almost all of the task force members opposed expansion of the public sewer and water in the new General Plan and had criticized the Department of Planning and Zoning for considering it.

"It was sort of an odd thing," said Geoffrey Silberman, vice president of the Howard County Citizens Association and a task force member. "We had explicitly taken expansion of the planned service area out of issues to be studied -- and yet it would keep showing back up in the stuff that DPZ [Department of Planning and Zoning] submitted. My thought is perhaps they wanted to float it as a trial balloon to see how folks would react to it."

In community meetings about the new General Plan, citizens from all over the county came out to oppose expansion of public sewer and water and increased development of the west.

Rutter defended the department's decision to consider the expansion despite the public's opposition. He said the county needed to study all options before it could make a decision that it could defend in the event of lawsuits.

The county hired a consulting company to study the fiscal impact of expanding public sewer and water service. Because new development generates more revenues for the county, Rutter said, he needed to make sure the county was acting responsibly in not expanding public services.

Paul Tischler of Tischler & Associates in Bethesda said it would not make much fiscal difference whether the county expanded the planned service area or not.

`Fiscally neutral'

"Although new growth pays for itself, the results should be considered fiscally neutral," Tischler said. "You should focus on other nonfiscal issues, quality-of-life issues."

He said the county also should look at environmental concerns, housing affordability and the balance of job vs. housing growth.

The county is considering four growth scenarios that would determine the pace and amount of growth over the next 20 years. Tischler said all four would generate enough revenue to keep the county in the black.

Peter Oswald, a member of the General Plan Task Force, criticized Howard for being too friendly to development, even without expansion of the public sewer and water.

No `slow-growth scenario'

"We don't have a slow-growth scenario," he said. "In every case, we are in a rush to build out. We do need to consider another option."

Silberman agreed. He said slower growth would have the beneficial effect of raising property values, which would generate more revenue for the county while preserving a high quality of life.

Rutter said that during the 1990 General Plan discussions, the county did consider a "no-growth scenario" but quickly dismissed it.

"It was just so expensive it ran off the chart," he said.

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