Pace of growth may ease, but not service demand

Development: Pressures mount for more affordable housing, as home prices continue to soar.

March 23, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

As Howard County decelerates from 35 years of fast growth and begins looking toward redevelopment of older areas, county leaders are confronting a more complex future.

There may be fewer new homes built each year, but school enrollments - and demands for more classroom seats and other government services - keep rising. The combination of fewer, but more expensive new homes, less open land, and ever higher prices for existing homes is ratcheting up the pressure for reasonably priced homes in an increasingly urban county.

"Anytime you limit the supply, you raise the price," said Leonard S. Vaughan, county housing director. "If you take a look at the whole affordability situation in Howard County, at some point in time half of the population is going to be priced out of the market," he said, despite the county's high $74,000 average household income.

Growth from new housing is still far from over, with the huge Emerson and Maple Lawn Farms mixed-use developments planned along Route 216 in the southern county and hundreds of new homes going up in Ellicott City and along the U.S. 40 corridor.

Higher land values are feeding this development trend, as owners of older properties with a few extra acres are hit with big assessment increases and resulting higher property tax bills. Those extra acres are sprouting new homes tucked into nearly every nook and cranny, prompting complaints from some neighborhood groups worried about congestion.

"It's certainly going to put a strain on the resources, and it has. Just look at the crowding of the schools, the roadways, just a general strain on services," said Danny Murray, president of the Ellicott City Residents Association.

"Ellicott City is so much piecemeal development. Columbia has a master plan, but right now there's an Ellicott City master plan that's just languishing," he said.

And despite complaints from motorists stuck in daily commuter back-ups that the county is allowing too many new homes too quickly, the rate of population growth is supposed to drop from 32 percent during the 1990s to a lower level this decade.

"We will certainly slow down in terms of new [housing] units. In terms of population, it's hard to say," said Marsha S. McLaughlin, acting county planning director. No one can predict how many new residents may come to Howard, she said, if younger families with more children replace older couples in existing homes.

About 2,000 units were built last year, McLaughlin said, and the county's housing allocation system has already reduced the permissible annual maximum to 1,500 a year.

But state Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat who has also served on the County Council and as county executive, doubts the assertion that home construction will slow until the county is built out in 15 or 20 years.

"It's ridiculous to say we're approaching build-out," she said, calling the chronic school crowding problem "a crisis" and advocating "using every revenue stream we can get our hands on," to stay ahead of the population growth curve.

The last large-scale, mixed-use developments expected in the county, Emerson and Maple Lawn Farms, are each expected to add more than 1,100 new dwellings, as well as more than 1 million square feet of commercial and office space over the next decade. Cherrytree Farms, a 170-home development, is under way in the same area.

The 2000 General Plan called for a maximum of 1,500 new homes a year, compared with a ceiling of 2,500 a year before 1990, and school crowding may limit home construction even more.

Zoning exists for potentially about 30,000 more homes on individual lots and in small subdivisions. And higher land prices are making agricultural preservation tougher each year because government cannot compete with the prices developers are willing to pay.

But looking ahead, county planners and elected officials are preparing for big changes that will be more evident by this decade's end.

Comprehensive rezoning of the entire county is scheduled this year - a process expected to produce changes along the U.S. 1 corridor that could pave the way for redevelopment there.

More homes and apartments concentrated near transportation hubs and employment centers along the county's oldest route between Baltimore and Washington could help spur economic development and provide housing for more eastern county workers.

Columbia, though nearly built out, is beginning a transformation that will intensify land uses in Town Center, replacing older, smaller buildings with higher, larger ones, and adding hundreds more housing units and a 14-screen movie theater to the town's core.

"I expect there will just be a continuation of redevelopment, since the community is pretty close to being built out. I think Town Center will be a more vibrant community, having more life and more pedestrian traffic," said Dennis W. Miller, vice president and general manager of Columbia for the Rouse Co., the town's developer.

But as home prices continue to rise, reaching an average price of more than $250,000 for single-family detached homes and townhouses in September, the strategy of limiting growth in the western county by keeping public utilities out of the area could come under more pressure for change.

"There may be pressure later on. Right now, the council doesn't want that to happen and the executive doesn't want that to happen," said Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican. Years from now, "who knows what will happen? Schools might have failing septic systems, but even then, the council still has control over zoning" and could refuse to allow more development in the semirural west.

"I think the people want it that way," Kittleman said.

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