Howard County's lightning-quick pace of residential development is slowing, a trend that pleases citizens who feel boxed in by growth and is credited with pushing house prices sharply higher.
In their just-released annual Development Monitoring System Report, county planners revealed that builders finished 1,904 houses and apartments from October 2000 through September 2001. That's a 24 percent drop from the previous 12 months - when 2,494 homes were added to the landscape - and the lowest number in half a decade.
Homes across the county - new and old - are also getting much more expensive.
Between fall 2000 and fall 2001, the average buyer spent $236,421, compared with $186,680 five years earlier, according to planners. Single-family houses cost $315,500, on average, an 8 percent jump from the previous 12 months.
County Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr., noting the strong housing market, attributes the slower pace of development to tighter regulations, not the sagging economy.
"This report shows that slowing and constraining of the development is working, but it's not working in a draconian way, cutting people off in the middle of the process," Rutter said.
"We knew the residential growth was slowing; we intended that. It's been better directed," he said.
The planners' 81-page document offers the vital statistics of a county that for decades has been one of the fastest developing in Maryland. Howard's 32 percent population growth from 1990 to 2000 was outpaced only by Calvert and Worcester counties, according to the Census Bureau.
County planners' newly calculated rate of development still isn't leisurely by most people's standards. Builders finished an average of five homes a day during the report's 12-month timeline. But the previous year, they completed nearly seven homes a day.
L. Earl Armiger, president of Orchard Development Corp. in Ellicott City, said the industry has felt the pinch. He attributes the slowdown to a decreasing supply of land and particularly to crowded schools, which trigger a county regulation that delays home building.
"Builders and developers can't get as many lots approved as in previous years," he said.
"There's no question it's driving house prices up much faster than normal. ... I think practically every Howard County-based builder has had to look to other areas for their growth because there's just not enough opportunity for them here."
Released about 20 years before "build-out," the moment when Howard's supply of raw, developable land is expected to be gone, the planners' report shows a jurisdiction filling in from all sides:
From fall 2000 through fall 2001, the most homes - 634, or 33 percent - were built in the Ellicott City area. Nearly 500 homes were completed in Columbia, nearly 400 in western Howard, about 240 in the Elkridge area and almost 140 in the county's southeast. The numbers can't be easily compared with previous years because department officials changed the statistical boundaries of the areas.
Those residences brought about 5,500 people to the county, planners estimate.
Increasingly, Howard's new residents are living in single-family houses. Seventy-one percent of homes were built in this style from fall 2000 through fall 2001, compared with an average of 66 percent of the homes built over the previous four years.
The most expensive homes available in that year were in the western Howard town of Dayton. Twenty-four were sold for an average of $500,000 or more.
County officials issued building permits for 3.3 million square feet of nonresidential space from fall 2000 to fall 2001 - equivalent to 36 Wal-Marts, but mostly in the form of office and industrial buildings. That's up slightly from 3.1 million square feet the previous 12 months. But planners see clear signs of a drop-off this year as the recession and vacancy rates rise in the county.
Planners estimate that the extra commercial space could bring 7,600 jobs to Howard County.
Nearly 800 acres - all in western Howard County - were preserved from fall 2000 to fall 2001, compared with 850 acres the previous 12 months. All the land was set aside through residential development, which in western Howard is clustered together on parcels to leave larger areas open. As of September, 32,700 acres in the western part of the county had been preserved - including parks.
David Catania, treasurer of the Ellicott City Residents Association, was pleased to hear that new- home construction has declined. He believes that many quality-of-life factors - traffic, crime, education, property values - are negatively affected by fast growth.
"It's good to know it's decreasing. We want to keep it on that trend," he said, adding: "Ellicott City is popular, OK. But there's limits to what we can tolerate."
Homebuilding appears destined to decrease again. Howard County's 2000 General Plan - which sets guidelines for growth over the next two decades - caps yearly residential development in the near future at 2,000 homes and says overall growth through 2020 should be limited to an average of 1,500 new homes a year.
"You're not going to get the same growth rates as you had in the past," said Jeff Bronow, chief of research for the planning department. "The general trend suggests things are slowing down."