Howard: Boom county

Census: Howard's population has increased nearly 30 percent in the last decade.

March 31, 2000|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Business is bustling at the bagel shop in River Hill Village Center in west Columbia. Friends gather at one table chatting after their morning workout at the gym and a couple nearby munch bagels in a booth with their energetic toddler.

Ten years ago, this picture of suburban contentment didn't exist here. The bagel shop and the hundreds of Colonial-style homes around it were built as Howard County's population increased by nearly 30 percent, transforming fields into subdivisions and remaking country roads into highways.

"I get lost," said Thomas Amerault, who grew up in Howard County but spent 15 years on the Eastern Shore before returning two years ago.

He was one of nearly 8,000 residents added to the county's population between July 1998 and July 1999, according to figures released this month by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Howard gained more residents in that period than any county in the state except Montgomery. And while Montgomery's growth was largely attributed to foreign immigration, Howard's increase stemmed mainly from residents moving from other counties in Maryland or other states.

Amerault said he and his wife, Jean, who are retired, moved to River Hill to be closer to their family.

Other newcomers, such as Susan and Doug Perdue, were drawn to Howard by the county's schools, which are considered among the best in the state.

When Doug Perdue was transferred from his federal government job in Michigan, the couple looked at houses in Montgomery and Howard counties before moving to River Hill.

"You get a much better school district for the housing price," he said.

Howard also offers an advantage of location. When Leslie Kornreich and her husband moved from Savannah, Ga., they chose Elkridge to be close to his Baltimore job and her family in Northern Virginia.

"We are very happy in Howard County," she said.

Howard has not been immune to growing pains, however. One of the smallest counties in the state, it is wedged between Baltimore and Washington and traversed by two interstate highways.

From 1990 to 1999, the county's population grew from 187,000 to 243,000.

"Howard County is still a destination for the Washington spillover," said Dunbar Brooks, a demographer with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a regional planning group.

While most of the increase stemmed from residents moving from other parts of the state or nation, the county also attracted a large number of immigrants.

The Census Bureau estimates that about 10 percent of the county's new residents in the 1998-1999 reporting period were immigrants.

The county's growth has caught the attention of charitable groups such as Hadassah, a Jewish women's organization, which hired Rachel Packer of Olney to recruit volunteers in the Howard area.

Young families plentiful

"The number of Jewish residents in the county is rapidly increasing," Packer said. "There are lots of young families."

For years, county officials have struggled to come up with a plan for orderly growth. A plan to rezone large portions of western Howard to reduce the number of houses that could be built there was rejected in the late 1980s because county officials considered that proposal unfair to landowners.

Instead, the county decided to concentrate its growth where water and sewer service was available in eastern Howard and opted for a model in the western county that clusters houses to preserve land.

Planners expect the county to be fully developed in 10 to 15 years, but they could not confirm the Census Bureau's figures showing the pace of growth accelerating.

The number of building permits issued in the county has remained fairly steady at about 2,000 a year, said Jeff Bronow, chief of research for the county's Department of Planning and Zoning.

But the building permit data does not take into account the size of the household or the vacancy rate of existing homes and apartments.

Most of the homes built in the county in recent years have been single-family detached houses that would attract families with children.

And managers of county apartments said they have seen occupancy rates in their complexes climb in the past couple years from about 95 percent to more than 98 percent.

Many tenants are renting more expensive apartments as well.

"I would guess half of the two-bedroom apartments are occupied by one person," said Michael H. Rosen, vice president and chief operating officer for Town & Country Trust, which owns Town & Country Apartments in Ellicott City.

Sign of economy

The low vacancy rates are a testament to the strong economy, Rosen said. Howard County's job growth was the strongest in the region from 1990 through 1998 and its unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the state.

"If the economy gets really tough, they go back home to live with Mama," Rosen said.

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