As space runs out, some try to fill in

Established neighborhoods targeted by developers looking for more room

March 09, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

When a developer plotted Baltimore County's Woodbrook neighborhood, he laid out a series of small lots along Buchanan Road, a street he named for himself.

But market forces being what they are in that stately section of the county between Ruxton and the Elkridge Club, a family bought all the lots, assembling a mini-estate just north of the city line and erasing in the minds of neighbors all memory of those half-acre plots.

Now, 50 years later, in a scene planners expect will become more common nationwide as land preservation and Smart Growth-style legislation take hold, a developer has found this pocket of "unused density" - a buried treasure in a neighborhood where some homes now sell for well over $1 million - and he is seeking to put eight houses where there was one.

In Baltimore County, and to some extent in Howard County, where strict rural land-preservation efforts have been in place for decades, the large tracts of land developers have traditionally relied on are becoming scarce. As a result, builders are turning to "infill development" - building on small parcels in established neighborhoods and, in some cases, tearing down homes on large lots to construct several houses in their place.

In the past three years, more than 675 homes have been built in Baltimore County communities inside the Baltimore Beltway, an area where large-scale development stopped decades ago, according to statistics from the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

Smart Growth ideas are politically popular in Baltimore County, where Executive James T. Smith Jr. highlighted his role in protecting the rural northern part of the county from development 25 years ago and won the November election on a platform that promised to breathe new life into older neighborhoods.

But it seems that infill, the consequence of those ideas, is not so popular.

Residents say what's happening in Woodbrook isn't bringing new life - it's destroying the character of a neighborhood that has been stable for decades.

"When people buy a house in an existing, mature neighborhood, they are making an investment not only in the house but also in the neighborhood, with the assumption that the character of the neighborhood will remain stable," said Steven A. Allen, an attorney who lives in Woodbrook. "To allow development in a way which will change the character of the area is essentially to diminish the investment that people make in a place when they decide to invest time and their lives there."

The Home Builders Association of Maryland sponsored a study two years ago to determine the county's building inventory, and it concluded that the last developable land in Baltimore County would disappear within a few years, said Tom Ballentine, the organization's director of government affairs.

The study also found that 90 percent of the buildable land is in scattered plots of 3 acres or less, meaning conflicts over infill development like the one in Woodbrook are likely to become more common.

"People don't like sprawl or density, which is a Catch-22," Ballentine said.

Melvin C. Benhoff, the Cockeysville developer working on the Woodbrook project, is attempting another infill project in Ruxton, where a dispute has erupted over his proposal to demolish an early-1900s bungalow and build four houses in its place.

Neighbors have protested and gained preliminary landmark protection for the house, but construction is well under way on a new home behind it, and Benhoff could add a third without touching the bungalow.

Benhoff declined to comment on the developments while the county is deciding whether to approve them, but his attorney, G. Scott Barhight, said the seven houses proposed for Woodbrook would be custom homes selling for as much or more than existing homes in the neighborhood. Recent home sales in the area have ranged from $800,000 to nearly $1.2 million.

Smith, the Baltimore County executive, said county regulations are designed for the development of virgin land and ill-suited for redevelopment work. He has assigned Permits and Development Management Director Arnold Jablon to convene a committee to recommend changes to county regulations to make redevelopment easier.

"To balance those changes, there certainly is going to be consideration for compatibility requirements," Smith said.

Nationally, other communities with long-standing growth boundaries have experienced similar infill pressures.

Lexington, Ky., which in 1958 was the first community in the nation to enact growth boundaries, experienced tear-down redevelopment in some of its more attractive neighborhoods a few years ago, said Chris D. King, the planning director there.

"After a few confrontations between the planning department, neighborhoods and the developers, we kind of worked together to come to an agreement as to what kinds of divisions, what size and character they would agree with, and that settled down somewhat," he said.

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