Residents say no to `neo'

Projects: Neighbors fighting proposals for developments resembling small towns say the plans pack too many homes into a small area.

April 04, 2000|By Liz Atwood and Alice Lukens | Liz Atwood and Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

It takes a community to raise a village.

While land planners and architects are embracing a movement to build housing developments that resemble small towns, some suburban residents are fighting such proposals, saying they're just an excuse to pack many houses into a small area.

Proponents say neotraditionalism promotes smart growth by saving land and encouraging walking. Instead of large yards, the developments feature village greens and common play areas. Homes, which range from apartments to single-family houses, are close together along narrow streets and near shops and offices.

But many residents prefer large lots away from their neighbors.

"To tell you the truth, people basically love suburban sprawl," said John W. Taylor, past president of the now-defunct Howard Countians for Responsible Growth, who lives on 3 acres in Western Howard County. "It sells well. It's worked well for 50 years."

Opposition to neotraditional projects has sprung up around the country and in several areas in Maryland.

The St. Michael's Town Commission recently denied a request from neotraditional pioneers Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk to build a 150-unit project, finding that the design was not consistent with the town's zoning laws and growth plans.

In Baltimore County, officials backed away from neotraditional elements in the planned community of Honeygo.

In Howard County, which has had regulations encouraging neotraditional designs for nearly a decade, developer Stewart Greenebaum has spent 30 months trying to move his Maple Lawn Farms project from blueprint to reality.

Greenebaum, a Pikesville developer who has built a number of large-lot subdivisions, said he expected opposition but was not prepared for the long battle. Such opposition, he says, raises questions about the future of the neotraditional movement.

"If I can't get it done in a feasible way in Howard County, what's the point of doing it in counties that have been slower on the uptake?" Greenebaum asks.

Proponents say much of the opposition arises from misunderstanding neotraditional development. The design has been used to remake city neighborhoods, including public housing projects in Baltimore, but the design does not mean cheap housing. In places such as the Kentlands in Gaithersburg, single-family homes top $500,000.

"Some people hear a word like compact or density, and they see townhouses on farmland with cars parked out front," said Ron Young, deputy director for the Maryland Office of Planning.

Opponents of Greenebaum's Maple Lawn Farms on the site of the former Iager turkey farm say the 1,168-unit project, with its eight-story office towers, is incompatible with neighboring subdivisions where lots are typically larger than 1 acre. They fear such a project would stress roads and lower property values.

"They would like to see it as 1-acre lots," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning.

Pete Oswald, vice president of the Greater Beaufort Park Citizens Association, said residents such as himself moved into the neighborhood expecting the adjacent community to be like theirs -- single-family homes on large lots. Instead, more than half of the Maple Lawn Farms project would consist of townhouses, condominiums and apartments, he said.

"If there is one general concern it is losing our quality of life," he said.

Oswald and others are skeptical that closely packed development is the answer to suburban sprawl and argues that large lots are better for the tax base and the environment.

But Greenebaum said the reason neighbors oppose his development is his plan to include 50 "affordable" housing units -- predominantly condominiums and town homes that would start at about $100,000. Other homes in the development would go for up to $800,000.

Greenebaum said he is firm in his decision to include the lower-priced homes. "If we expect a policeman to lay down his life for us or the fireman to rush into a burning house do these people not have a right to be in the communities they serve?" he asked.

But many people don't want to give up the dream of a big back yard, said Jim Constantine, an architectural consultant based in Princeton, N.J., who has studied consumer preference.

"People are often asked to give up some yard space in order to have these stronger community amenities," he said.

Neotraditionalism has another community to persuade: the builders. Jeb Bittner, president of the Maryland and Delaware divisions of Pulte, said his company has worked on neotraditional communities, but he is not sold on the idea.

"I think the costs involved in a true neotraditional community are greater than those in a typical community, especially due to increased infrastructure costs," he said. "It narrows the market."

Todd Zimmerman, a real estate consultant in Clinton, N.J., said too many builders use "neotraditionalism" as a marketing gimmick.

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