Residents voice their complaints about infill

100 at meeting ask Robey, Merdon to help regulate growth of subdivisions

January 28, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Ellicott City residents lobbied the county executive and their local councilman last night for regulations to take the sting out of the small subdivisions squeezing into their neighborhoods, an increasingly common growth pattern that is driving them crazy.

Generous yards are so typical in older Howard County neighborhoods that many can be subdivided to take another house - or two or three. Land is so scarce and valuable that tiny clusters of new homes, called "infill" development, are popping up everywhere.

Nearly 100 residents crowded into Northfield Elementary School's cafeteria last night to hear what could be done, and they applauded loudly as speakers argued that Ellicott City infill has not been a model of harmonizing old and new.

Speakers criticized a number of things, including:

Oddly shaped lots.

Pipe-stem driveways.

Houses facing a different direction than anything else on the street.

New density-trade rules that allow developers to shoehorn in more homes than would have been allowed in earlier years, further crowding schools.

Seeking protection

They cried out for consistency.

"We don't want to see our communities thrown down the drain because of hodgepodge building," said Diane Butler, president of the St. John's Community Association, which called the meeting. "We're looking for the county to protect us."

Residents offered suggestions that County Executive James N. Robey and Councilman Christopher J. Merdon promised to study.

"What you've said has made some sense to me," said Robey, a Democrat.

He added: "Every time you change something, there is a ripple effect, and I need to know what that effect will be."

John Heasley, a St. John's neighborhood resident who gave a presentation on setbacks and lot layout, showed the crowd how a 4.75-acre section of Chatham Road changed from two houses in the mid-1990s to 11 houses - some still on the drawing board - with lots as small as a quarter-acre.

The homes, which connect to a pipe-stem driveway, are laid out so that each faces the back yard of the next house.

"This in a nutshell is the problem," he said.

A few suggestions

Heasley suggested that the county require public street frontage for all houses, not simply frontage on a pipe-stem drive, and stop allowing mini-subdivisions with the front yard of one house facing the back yard of another.

The underlying zoning for St. John's is roughly a half-acre per house, but relatively new rules allow developers to create smaller lots if they set aside open space. Jim Bieda, another presenter, said builders are putting unbuildable land such as floodplains in their open space and getting an unfair density reward.

"You bought swampland," Bieda said. "You couldn't build on it anyway."

Carolan Stansky, president of the Northfield Elementary Parent-Teacher Association, said the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance - which delays development in areas where schools are especially crowded - needs to be retooled.

Developers are "exploiting" an exemption in the law to build very small subdivisions without waiting, she said, and every little bit hurts because Northfield has 630 students in space meant for 500.

Also, instead of putting on the brakes when a school is projected to reach 115 percent of capacity, the county should take a close look at 105 percent, she added.

Expanded effort

Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, urged residents to lobby other council members so infill legislation does not end up dead on arrival.

Small subdivisions are not limited to the St. John's neighborhood, he said, but some areas of Howard are relatively free of infill.

"Ellicott City is growing the fastest of any place in the county," he said.

Butler, the St. John's association president, challenged Merdon and Robey to come up with a solution.

"This is not a problem that's going away," she said.

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