Land crisis feared in Md.

Buildable parcels becoming scarce, homebuilders say

County uniformity sought

Associations press for bill to create yardstick on growth

January 13, 2002|By Robert Nusgart | Robert Nusgart,SUN REAL ESTATE EDITOR

The lifeblood of the home construction industry is the successful search for buildable land.

With no land, there are no new homes to sell. No homes means no money. No money means you're out of business.

In the latest housing boom, developers and builders have been warning that finding buildable parcels has become more difficult. With demand helping to shrink existing inventories and the complaint that governmental regulations are stretching out the development process, those in the industry say that a crisis may be developing in the state.

Last year, the Home Builders Association of Maryland and the Maryland State Builders Association tried to get legislators, environmental groups and local authorities to agree to a bill that would redefine how and where growth in the state would occur.

There was a lot of talk, but little action.

This year, as the General Assembly begins its work in Annapolis, the building industry is back again in hopes of pushing through legislation that will uniformly calculate how much land is out there to build on and how much land jurisdictions will need to satisfy future demand.

"We are looking at some consistent ways to determining ... the criteria that [counties] are using of what is buildable and what is not buildable," said John Kortecamp, executive vice president of HBAM.

"Those criteria ought to be consistent across the board; otherwise, there won't be any meaningful ability to compare. And a lot of these decisions that the counties and jurisdictions will be making have regional implications.

"What happens in Howard County has implications for what happens in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Carroll, and vice versa. Having consistent criteria is important to all of them."

The strategy the trade group used last year was to finally embrace the concept of Smart Growth. The 5-year- old initiative - a cornerstone of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration - seeks to direct state funds to designated growth areas, cities and towns, and by doing so to stop suburban sprawl.

Last year, the building industry wanted to become part of the discussion and offer ideas on how development should proceed. At that time, former HBAM President Kevin Carney said the group should be involved because "we are the solution and implementers of Smart Growth."

The HBAM said that local jurisdictions didn't know exactly how many buildable lots they had and that they included lots that by today's standards couldn't support housing.

The association also said there was no consistent methodology to count the lots from county to county, making it impossible to predict growth and needs.

Additionally, if a more consistent way of counting lots and projecting growth could be agreed upon, it would then help local politicians fend off the NIMBY - Not In My Back Yard - crowd when subdivisions come into question after already going through the development process.

"The end game is to get some agreement about the pressure on the development envelope, and to make some decisions about redevelopment, in-fill development and then about future infrastructure investment to support the development that will be coming," Kortecamp said.

"Our position is, the more you know, the better decision you can make and the more defensible those decisions will be."

However, one dissident voice is David S. Blinden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, who questions what the "end game" really is for the builder associations.

"I can only speculate, because we haven't seen their final proposal, but many of the same concerns that arose last year are still being raised by the persons doing the work in the trenches, the county planners," Blinden said. "What they are suggesting is that we are running out of land to develop. That is going to be tough to convince people that that is the case.

"I don't see the development industry falling over. They've had the most successful year probably in the last five years. ... It's not an industry that is starving right now."

Blinden said he doesn't believe that there can be a one-size-fits-all way to calculate land use from county to county.

"There are going to be a lot of different opinions," he said. "But the one thing that you don't need to do is have [another] law."

He added that calculating land use is "a dynamic process where there are lots of debates as to what is the appropriate methodology and what is not."

Although the builder associations are still looking for a sponsor for the bill - "obtaining good sponsorship won't be a problem," Kortecamp said - there are concerns about the cost to the counties.

HBAM hired RESI, the research and consulting unit at Towson University, to conduct a lot study of Baltimore County last year at a cost of $20,000. That study found that there were only about 5,000 buildable lots remaining in Baltimore County.

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