Housing boom comes to rural Cecil

Many wonder about drain on county's resources, uncontrolled development

March 23, 2003|By Lucie L. Snodgrass | Lucie L. Snodgrass,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

During the past 30 years, as its neighbors embraced widespread development, Cecil County kept its distance.

In keeping with its conservative reputation, residents and government leaders in the 348-square-mile county at the head of the Chesapeake Bay watched warily as tens of thousands of new homes transformed New Castle County, Del., and Harford County into bedroom communities for Wilmington and Baltimore.

And not unlike 1813, when citizens blockaded the Elk River to keep the British from reaching Elkton, the county resisted yielding to outside forces that sought to affect wholesale change.

In so doing, Cecil County became an anomaly, a rural - and affordable - oasis on the increasingly congested Interstate 95 corridor between Washington and Philadelphia.

Now it seems that time is finally catching up.

Average home prices in Cecil County, once the undisputed bargain of the region, have risen 26 percent to $178,017 between 2000 and 2002. During that same period, lot prices increased 75 percent to $70,000 for a three-fourths-acre lot. Realtors expect the upward trend to continue.

"A 1.1-acre lot that sold for $78,000 last year just sold again for $109,000," says John Kilby, an agent with RE/MAX Chesapeake in North East. "And some of the new homes that three years ago were selling for $250,000 are now going for $400,000."

Kilby and others familiar with the area's sudden emergence on the real estate market say the county's gradual transformation is inevitable as contiguous jurisdictions are built out and home prices throughout the region continue to rise.

"There's nothing to stop it," Kilby remarked. "It's going to happen because of demographics."

Cecil County is growing rapidly - too rapidly, according to some.

Offering easy access to Interstate 95 and U.S. 40, the county is attracting new residents who are seeking the affordability and rural atmosphere that largely have disappeared from southern Harford and New Castle counties. Between 1990 and 2000, Cecil County's population rose 20.5 percent to 85,951 - the increase was the sixth highest in the state, behind other once-rural counties such as Carroll, Charles and Howard.

Sally Risinger, director of sales and marketing for Barry Andrews Homes, which has four developments under construction in Cecil County, said the company has been surprised by the price increases.

"I think we all had a tendency to be a little bit biased against Cecil County," she says, referring to its still prevalent image as a sleepy county. "No one would have thought that the majority of our sales would be in the high $200,000 to low $300,000 range."

Actually, others see the rising prices as a natural outcome of the go-it-slow approach the county has traditionally taken toward development. Chuck Gregg, a Realtor with Long & Foster in North East, says there is a pent-up demand for housing, and he views the growth in inventory and the rise in prices as positive.

"I don't see a downside to what's happening here. It's not runaway growth. We have a comprehensive plan in the county that is effective and targets growth in areas where it's smart."

Eric Sennstrom, Cecil County's director of planning, is less sanguine. The county's comprehensive zoning plan is far from complete, he says, and critical issues, such as how to provide water and sewer service in designated growth areas, still have not been resolved. That has allowed development to occur in rural areas. Cecil County, he says, has to learn from the mistakes that its neighbors made.

"New Castle County, instead of focusing where they wanted growth to occur, just let it happen in a willy-nilly fashion," he says. "We are trying to take steps to focus and manage growth sensibly."

Nelson Bolender, the president of the Board of County Commissioners, which governs the county, says it is a delicate balancing act.

"If you have no growth, it's devastating. Growth did and will continue to increase our income-tax base," Bolender notes. "At the same time, what people are looking at in Harford and New Castle counties is what they don't want: They have unbelievable sprawl."

Cecil County may have to act quickly to avoid the same fate.

Judging from the 40 percent increase in the overall dollar volume of home sales between 2001 and 2002 to $199.9 million, buyers in Cecil County like not just what they see there, but also its lower prices.

Comparable homes in Harford and Baltimore counties typically cost 20 percent to 40 percent more than properties in Cecil County. And, says Risinger, "You can have it all without the clutter and the traffic."

Whether that will remain so has yet to be seen.

The same developers who changed the contours of Harford County are poised to build similar developments 15 miles up the road. And they may be selling to the very same families who bought homes in Harford County decades earlier.

Risinger says that about half the clients of Barry Andrews Homes come from Harford County, most of them seeking lower home prices.

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