Homeowners selling their `back yards'

Spiral of land values, taxes pressure some to get rid of extra land

Development opportunities

Soaring assessments confront residents with difficult choices

January 20, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

In long-settled sections of eastern Howard County, expensive new homes are filling spare spaces as soaring real estate prices - with taxes to match - are pressuring suburbanites to sell any extra acres that surround their older homes.

"People are literally selling their back yards to put a house in," said Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County.

The lovely landscape along Old Columbia Pike as it approaches historic Ellicott City, for instance, is filling up - to the consternation of some and the profit of others.

While some people are willingly cashing in, others say they are being forced to sell their excess land to developers because they cannot afford the sharply higher taxes. Owners say a variety of state and local preservation programs that could lower their tax bills are too obscure and restrictive.

It's a phenomenon particular to Howard County, where new-home prices over $300,000 are routine, giving builders the incentive to develop small, difficult parcels passed over before.

"We were very happy here the way it was," said Theodore Nelson, a retiree who lives with his wife, Patricia, in the 3900 block of Old Columbia Pike.

The assessment on their 17 acres rose from $149,000 to $528,600 two years ago and is likely to rise sharply again next year. But the couple will not pay the higher taxes because they have contracted to sell all but their home and just over 1 acre for a 30-home development.

"Suddenly the taxes change dramatically and you can't afford to live there any more," he said. "They [state assessors] have been forcing people to sell their property."

Like Bill and Ellen Waff in Savage, people in greater Ellicott City who saw their property tax assessments triple or more two years ago say they are signing deals for dozens of expensive new homes that will pull that heavy tax burden off their backs, making them rich but unhappy.

The Waffs are moving to Connecticut this month, and their 1893 home and 6.7 acres near the old Savage Mill will become two dozen townhouses. They sold, they said, because their assessment has risen from $168,220 to $605,840 in four years, more than doubling their taxes after Bill was laid off. Maryland's tax assessment cap protects a home and 1 acre, but not excess land.

Owners of older homes on 5, 7 or 12 acres are finding that their extra land is not protected from huge assessment increases as scarce building lots in Howard become more valuable.

State assessment officials say they are just doing their job, assigning realistic values to land based on recent sales, and builders and county officials say they are not villains.

`Million-dollar properties'

"A lot of people who are not millionaires find themselves living on million-dollar properties," said James R. Schulte, of Security Development, a Howard County developer. Schulte is developing Sandra and Wayne Pfau's 27 acres, which is zoned for two homes per acre.

L. Earl Armiger, whose Orchard Development Corp. has prepared home lots on Old Columbia Pike, said people making huge profits by selling their land may not all be unhappy.

"Who could pass it up if they thought their land was worth $500,000 and it was really worth $1.5 million? They can tell you they sold it because the taxes went up, but I wouldn't believe it. Most people today in Howard County sell because of the price they can get."

Schulte said many of these odd lots or extra acres were not worth developing until the boom of the past few years.

"It's all based on what the finished lots are worth, which is based on what the finished homes can sell for." Lots without proper road access or sewerage are expensive to develop. "But as values rise, you can start solving some of those problems," Schulte said.

County Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. pointed out that building homes in the eastern county fits the county's growth management plan and the state's Smart Growth program.

"We're being criticized [by state planners] for not being dense enough. We should have higher densities," Rutter said.

"It's part of this whole controversy that it's the big, bad developers, but it's the people who have been here [homeowners] who are the developers," he said.

But some affected families vehemently disagree.

"Maybe there are people who would be happy to be pried out of their homes, but we've been here a long time, and we have seriously deep roots in the community. I think it's evil that somebody says suddenly your property is real valuable," said Sandra Pfau, who lives with her husband, Wayne, and their two sons a half-mile into the woods off Landing Road in Ellicott City.

"Our property is in the process of being sold. How happy can you be about losing your home?" she said.

The Pfaus' two teen-age sons don't want to leave their friends and schools, yet Wayne Pfau is a mail carrier and cannot afford the taxes on their land. They rejected state preservation programs that might lower the taxes because of the strings attached, they said.

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