Getting lots from little

Subdividing: As prime land grows sparse, putting housing in the nooks and crannies of established neighborhoods can be a difficult fit in the suburbs.

February 17, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Misty Lawrence can see the future of Maryland suburban development from the front yard of her 40-year-old Ellicott City home, and to her eyes it isn't pretty.

The 2.6-acre homestead next door will be split into four lots, if the county approves. Another four houses are being built on a 2-acre parcel a stroll away. Thirty-five townhouses are planned for 7 acres around the corner.

In Howard County, as in other popular suburbs, the days of sweeping residential developments are coming to an end. The county everyone seems eager to move into is running out of all but unconnected bits and pieces of land, and thousands of people who live in what they thought were settled neighborhoods feel the pressure.

This is Smart Growth in action, development known as "infill" because it fills in modest spaces in areas with public utilities instead of encroaching on the less-developed countryside. But these infill spaces also are surrounded by people, and they wish they had more say about the construction next door.

"We are a 40-year-old neighborhood with a 40-year-old infrastructure," said Lawrence, whose family of five lives in a modest neighborhood known informally as Crowder. "We're just not designed to carry very much traffic back here. We have a blind hill, and we have no sidewalks.

"We expect infill -- it's just the nature of Howard County growing -- but I expected smart growth. Instead, we're getting just a cramming in of buildings without infrastructure upgrades to go with it," Lawrence said.

"Infill is just very unpopular," said Cindy Hamilton, who oversees land development for the county Department of Planning and Zoning. "People feel, `Hey, you're doing something to the established community.' ... That was in their back yard, and `it's not going to change.' Now it is changing."

The frustration in Howard is shared across the nation. Steven Bodzin, communications director for the Congress for the New Urbanism in San Francisco, said many communities are discovering that infill isn't necessarily a good suburban fit.

"Some of these areas are very difficult to fill in," he said. "Quite often, we've built them on this pattern where the roads are built to serve the current use, and there's no long-term thinking of `What's this going to become 20 years, 50 years, 100 years from now.'"

With infill in mind, Howard County officials recently added a requirement that residents be given a heads-up that something new could be coming next door and a chance to influence the result. Now developers must meet with neighbors before submitting plans for residential subdivisions in eastern Howard, where people live more closely together than in the rural western end.

Widespread issue

Other Maryland counties are also wrestling with ways to ease growth into older neighborhoods.

Baltimore County, which has for 10 years required developers to meet with neighbors, went a step further during the past few months: Armed with photographs of architecture, garages and parks, planners went into communities across the county to get their opinions on residential design.

In Montgomery County, where development pressures have been intense for decades, planners take a focused look at infill. They involve residents and builders in regular revisions to plans for 41 communities that offer suggestions for managing growth -- sometimes down to individual parcels.

But infill remains a challenge for everyone involved.

In Howard County, planners have more projects to analyze because many are splintered into a few acres here and a dozen there. Developers, often dealing with odd-shaped, difficult parcels they would not have considered a decade ago, have more headaches for fewer lots. And neighbors -- who often respond with the outrage and despair of a people invaded -- have to live with the result.

Happily unnoticed

Ellicott City's Crowder, like a growing number of tiny communities across Howard County's suburban east, is teetering on the precipice of rapid change after decades of quiet maturation.

"We sort of were a forgotten little neighborhood, which is why most of us like it," said Sabrina Fioretto, whose family moved into Crowder four years ago.

What stands now, west of Route 104, is a collection of about 55 small ranchers and Cape Cods built in the 1950s and early 1960s -- obviously aging but with a dollop of character. The four small streets are barely large enough for two cars to pass. But the yards are generous.

So generous that as many as 148 additional residences could be built in the community -- on the Jones family's 15 acres, the Loughs' 6 acres and on the extra half-acre or two that can be found on many of the neighbors' lots.

Zoning allows one house on a little less than a half-acre in the neighborhood. But landowners with at least 4 acres could, with additional permission, build up to five townhouses or apartments per acre for people who are ages 55 and older.

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