Critics assail exception to housing rules

Residents say loophole lets builders circumvent limits on construction

Piecemeal development at issue

Subdivision of individual lots allowed even where schools are over capacity

April 14, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Crowded schools delay the construction of subdivisions in Howard County - all, that is, except the very smallest developments.

Though relatively few houses have been built under this exemption, residents are beginning to question its wisdom in a climate where every little bit of classroom space counts.

People who want to build another house on their property - or two, if the land is empty - can do so without being held up for as long as four years by crowding in local elementary and middle schools. The idea is to make life easier on small landowners, such as parents who want to carve out a lot for an offspring.

But angry Ellicott City residents are watching developers use the exemption to their advantage by building a little now and the rest later.

"The builders are running around, looking for all the parcels they can ... and then they cram these houses in and they're getting in underneath the school issue," said Diane Butler, president of the St. John's Community Association, which is working on a proposal to eliminate that option. "Every time you put in a house that has three, four, five bedrooms in it, you're going to end up with a couple of kids in it."

According to the school system's most recent data, 24 of Howard's 37 elementary schools are over capacity. Half of the middle schools are crowded.

But Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county's planning director, pointed out that the type of development the St. John's Community Association is worried about represents a tiny fraction of the hundreds of homes constructed each year. Between May 2000 and May 2001, he said, 27 houses were built as one- or two-lot projects that were not required to pass the county Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance's "schools test."

Twenty-nine houses were built under the provision the year before, and 25 between May 1998 and May 1999, Rutter said. About a dozen are in the more densely populated east, he said.

"I would say it probably is not having a dramatic impact on the school system to have 12 new lots in the entire eastern part of the county per year," he said.

Butler's worry is that school crowding will persuade more developers to subdivide one or two lots now without having to wait to build. Almost a dozen houses have been built or are in the works in her neighborhood, she said - her house is one example.

"There's 10 I can see right from my back yard," she said.

Jim Eacker, a member of the committee that helped craft the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance and who now makes recommendations about changes to the law, said the provision was included when most of Howard's developments were large projects - now a declining trend.

"The intent of the original committee ... wasn't to open doors for developers to play games," he said. "I think it's worth looking at, but I guess I'd like to know to what extent this is happening. Is it one developer doing two or three of these in one area and that's the extent of the problem? Or is it more widespread?"

Rutter guessed that a half-dozen of the projects each year have come from developers planning to build more on the land later. He sees that being done by small builders who use the first house to pay for their engineering costs and large builders who want a lot subdivided quickly for a model home.

Courtney Watson, an APFO committee member who is running for a school board seat, said it might be helpful to determine how many houses could be built under the provision to see whether the potential is big enough to warrant a change in the law.

"But my guess is that it's not significant enough to legislate," she said. "I don't think it amounts to too many kids ... per school." On average, it takes about three houses to generate one elementary-school pupil, Watson said.

What typically affects classrooms is the big subdivisions, agreed Jeff Bronow, the planning department's chief of research. But with larger parcels of undeveloped land becoming increasingly rare, more of Howard's growth is coming from small subdivisions, he added. That means one-lot projects could become popular.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.