Council weighs housing, roads in 20-year plan

Informal agreement emerges to delay 1,000 new houses

Vision slowly taking shape

July 27, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Will a 200-mph Maglev train ever stop in Howard County?

How about light rail?

If the county allows 1,000 fewer homes to be built during this decade, does that mean schools won't be crowded? Or will it mean income and property tax revenues so much lower that the county won't be able to pay off its highway bonds?

Should congested Route 32 west of Clarksville be widened for safety, or should it be left alone to discourage future commuters from Carroll and Frederick counties?

Can central Columbia ever be made attractive to walkers?

Those are some of the questions the Howard County Council has wrestled with and wondered about in three work sessions on the 20-year General Plan, due for formal council consideration in September and a vote in October.

Although the plan is a guide, what it says is important because it is the basis for later, specific changes in county zoning laws, in the annual housing allocation chart the County Council adopts and in development regulations. The housing chart is part of the web of county laws designed to ensure that schools, roads and infrastructure aren't overwhelmed by new home development.

The Maglev train question, and those about mass transit in Howard, were quickly answered by county Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. Basically, he told the council, don't hold your breath waiting for either one.

"To get to full speed [coming from Baltimore] it would be right about here, and they'd have to step on the brake in order to stop by the time it takes to get to Washington," he said to a few chuckles. In other words, there would be no way for such a train to stop in Howard County.

The irony, he told Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, is that despite the county's much-criticized fast growth, there aren't enough customers in Howard to make mass transit feasible.

Guzzone wasn't buying Rutter's view of mass transit's prospects in Howard, though.

"I just don't accept that we're not dense enough," he said.

Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, wants an easy walk from Columbia's homes and offices to shops, car repair garages and senior centers. She's thinking, she joked, about her future too, walking to Florence Bain Senior Center.

"I still think we can have a better people-oriented downtown," she said.

Western county Republican Councilman Allan H. Kittleman wants a safer, wider Route 32 from Route 108 to Interstate 70. But Guzzone has doubts about that. Will a wider road through the west draw more traffic? And will it drain precious road funding from more crowded eastern areas slated for thousands of new homes and businesses?

The housing allocation issue produced the most detailed discussion.

Guzzone brought it up. Instead of giving out allocations for up to 2,000 new homes annually in 2004 and 2005, why not slow allocations to 1,500 homes in each of those years? he asked.

"My chief concern is to do whatever we can within practical terms to slow the pace of residential growth," Guzzone said.

Rutter warned that the consequences of a residential slowdown could mean reduced revenues to pay for short-term highway construction bonds. East Columbia Democratic Councilman C. Vernon Gray added that he hadn't heard objections at the council's public hearings about the projected 30,000 homes the plan expects will be built by 2021.

That figure represents a 25 percent reduction under County Executive James N. Robey from the 40,000 new homes projected in the last General Plan, in 1990, Rutter said.

But Ellicott City Republican Councilman Christopher J. Merdon couldn't abide Gray's comment.

"I hear objections [to 30,000 new homes] every day," he said. Kittleman said he too agrees that home construction should be slower at mid-decade.

In their third session Tuesday, council members informally agreed to knock out the allocations for the 1,000 homes - 500 each in 2004 and 2005 - but allow them back in the plan's final four years, leaving the total at 30,000.

"If it's just to make a statement that `I want to slow growth,' I'm not sure that's the appropriate way to do it," Rutter said.

But later, at the meeting, he told members that Robey is agreeable to trimming the new-home total in the early years and adding them again at the end.

What effect will it have?

"In the short term, it definitely has some meaning," Merdon said, even though demand for new-home allocations is below the annual ceiling of 2,000 set in the 1990 General Plan.

"It's 1,000 homes that won't be built," Kittleman said. "Three of us [council members] wanted to make that point. It's what we said we'd do when we ran for election. Our political promises are our beliefs, and it gives the county the sense of where we want to go."

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