Ellicott City the hot spot for new homes

Town accounts for 40% of county's permits for residential projects

Half as many issued in Columbia

Figures from fall '01-'02

average price for houses in county up 9 percent

Howard County

January 23, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Howard County's boomtown is an old town.

Construction began on more homes in Ellicott City than in any other place in the county between fall 2001 and fall last year, according to a newly released report tracking local development.

County officials issued building permits for 1,642 homes during those 12 months, and 644 - roughly 40 percent - were in Ellicott City, a community that predates the Declaration of Independence.

In Columbia, center of the county's fast growth in recent decades, half as many permits were issued as in its older neighbor to the north.

Six large developments accounted for most of the Ellicott City boom, according to the county's Development Monitoring System Report. But nearly 30 percent of the new homes are spread out on small parcels across the community, part of a trend that has a growing number of residents demanding more oversight and regulations.

Danny Murray, president of the Ellicott City Residents' Association, thinks the growth points out how important it is for the area to have an individualized development plan and enough money to make sure roads and schools keep up with the population.

"If we're going to have the growth, we need to maintain the services," said Murray, who drives on snarled roads and sends his children to a crowded elementary school. "It almost seems like we need the growth to fund the county budget, but the services aren't keeping up with the growth. We're building a house of cards."

The annual monitoring report, prepared by the county Department of Planning and Zoning, tracks development of all sorts and the cost of homes. During the most recent period, which ended Sept. 30, the average sale price for any type of home jumped 9 percent, to about $257,950. A typical single-family house cost $348,340, compared with $315,500 the year before.

Prices ranged from an average of $159,900 for homes in Savage to $560,100 in Dayton.

Overall, construction started on a few dozen more homes - and a great deal less commercial space - than in the previous year.

Builders got permits to start 1,642 homes from fall 2001 to fall last year, 38 more units than in the previous year but a decrease from recent highs. Construction has begun on an average of 2,046 homes a year over the past half-decade.

Planners attribute the decrease to development restrictions, but they say the economy is to blame for the plunge in commercial development.

The county issued permits to build 1.2 million square feet of retail, office, industrial and other business space from fall 2001 to fall last year, compared with 2.9 million square feet the year before. The average over the past five years was 2.7 million.

"There was still some job growth, although it wasn't nearly as much as the job growth prior," said Jeff Bronow, chief of research for the planning department.

Planners expect about 2,950 new jobs from that commercial space and 200 jobs connected to the 616,435 square feet of added public and private school space. They predicted 7,650 new jobs the year before.

The job growth, once largely in Columbia, is now mostly near Interstate 95 and in western Howard. Homebuilding is also slowing in the 35-year-old planned community. Nineteen percent of the county's permits were for Columbia residences, compared with 24 percent the year before.

Ellicott City - with its mix of historic homes, 50-year-old ranchers and new Colonials - gained ground at the same time. About 40 percent of the county's building permits were issued there, up from 33 percent from fall 2000 to fall 2001.

Southeast Howard County, where several large mixed-use developments are getting started, is also growing more quickly. Construction began on nearly 200 homes during the 12 months tracked by planners. That's 12 percent of the county's growth, compared with 6 percent the year before.

The rural west - where growth slowed slightly - overtook Columbia, with 330 homes and 20 percent of the county's growth.

Still, "Columbia's not over," Bronow said, noting that Rouse Co. is seeking permission for more condominiums in Town Center. "It's just [that] River Hill is built out now, so anything new will be piecemeal."

Activists living in the boomtown of the moment, are hoping for help to ensure that old and new mesh well.

"I like it that there is such a demand to live in Ellicott City. That shows that people think it's valuable," said David Catania, treasurer of the residents association. "On the other hand, there's a limited amount of space, and that's why ... we want responsible planning to make sure that what is being approved to be built is compatible with the surrounding environment."

To see the full Development Monitoring System Report, log on to the county Department of Planning and Zoning Web site, www.co.ho.md.us/DPZ/DPZ_Homepage.htm.

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