Eastern Howard pushes seams

Growth: A decade of squeezing new homes into established communities is taxing county's infrastructure.

Census 2000 The Maryland Count

March 22, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Though sprawl gets all the attention in the Baltimore region, the big boom in the area's fastest-growing county happened in communities that have existed for decades.

Call it stealth growth.

Howard County is the fastest-growing county in the region and ranks third in the state, according to census figures released this week, and its long-established eastern edge turns out to have outstripped growth in the land-rich rural west.

Houses, townhouses, apartments and mobile homes sprung up everywhere around Ellicott City and Elkridge during the decade, but few were in the typical expansive subdivision on hundreds of acres of land. Most builders plied their trade on small parcels tucked here and there, around older developments, by major roads and near shopping centers. Land that had been overlooked before was snapped up, helping to fuel the county's 32 percent growth.

In the eastern communities, the effects are obvious. And not everyone is happy about it.

"It's too crowded, and it's just going to get worse," said Bob Bernstein, president of the Ellicott City Residents' Association. "I don't want Ellicott City to look like western Long Island - it's just house after house after house."

Across Howard's eastern towns, population boomed. Eighty-four percent of the county's 60,500 new residents moved to areas like Ellicott City, North Laurel and Columbia. Just over 9,200 people settled in the west - which accounts for two-thirds of the county's land.

Officials focus growth in the eastern part of the county because it's where the public water and sewer is located, where the infrastructure is already in place. That's Smart Growth.

Except that the infrastructure hasn't kept up.

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, thinks his area grew too fast in the 1990s, straining schools and roads.

The demand for land is so high that little is left to alleviate crowding. School officials have been searching for months for 15 acres in the northeast to build a much-needed elementary school.

"We've been forced to build a lot of schools that in 10 years or 15 years may be empty," Merdon said. "If we slowed down the growth, we could have built fewer schools and used them over a longer period of time."

Meanwhile, parents whose children attend class in trailers are fuming. "It's smart to have the development concentrated in the east, but we simply must provide the services in a timely manner," said Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City parent who has lobbied for new schools.

Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. said one reason for school overcrowding is that education officials reduced class sizes in the elementary grades in the past few years. But growth is also to blame, he acknowledged.

While officials expected the population boom - and have upgraded roads and built new schools - it's been harder for planners to keep up with the new type of growth in eastern Howard. A hundred 10-lot developments, Rutter said, require more infrastructure work than 10 100-lot developments.

"The vast majority of Elkridge to Ellicott City was the relatively small developments and in-fill," Rutter said.

The population in Elkridge and eastern Ellicott City jumped a whopping 82 percent in the 1990s, according to census data. People who saw it coming said the extra 14,300 residents have been impossible to miss.

"It's changed our whole way of life, the way it's developed around here," said Karen Vaughan, president of the Elkridge Landing Middle School PTA. "Everywhere you go, there just doesn't seem to be much open space anymore. Every little piece of land is getting developed."

County officials say they intend to keep the development focused in the east as the county speeds toward build-out in 2015 or 2020.

Of the 30,000 new homes expected during that time, one of six - or 5,000 - will be in the west, said Jeff Bronow, chief of the county planning department's research division.

But residents dismayed by crowding from growth are heartened that planners have begun to look at revitalizing the east's older areas, including the business-heavy U.S. 1 corridor.

Sally Voris, who grew up in Elkridge and moved back as an adult, wants her community to remain an inviting place for future generations.

"Right now, there's no overriding planning, the way there was in Columbia," she said. "What happens is this hodgepodge of development."

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