Curbs on home building sought

Commissioner proposes 6-month moratorium in large part of county

Harford County Moratorium on homebuilding proposed

Cecil County

March 30, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

ELKTON - Cecil County commissioners will meet Tuesday evening to consider proposed legislation that would impose a six-month moratorium on housing construction in about 63 percent of the county.

"It has stirred a lot of excitement," said Commissioner William C. Manlove, author of the bill, which would halt the required county approval for new homes in the northern and southern agricultural regions. "The homebuilders really hate me."

Manlove said he wants a break in housing development long enough to allow a newly appointed 11-member comprehensive review committee to examine the county's long-term growth plan.

"I don't want a flurry of new subdivisions being grandfathered in while the committee is doing its work," he said.

"Obviously, any discussion of a moratorium is a great concern to my industry," said Susan Stroud Davies, a spokeswoman for the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

"We feel that moratoriums aren't effective in solving problems of a jurisdiction. They end up compounding the problem."

Bill Luther, owner of Gemcraft Homes in Forest Hill, said a moratorium could force him to lay off some of his 30 workers who live in Cecil County.

He said an interruption in construction would have a serious impact on a variety of workers involved in the housing industry, including electricians, plumbers, those who put siding on houses and those who deliver the gravel to sites where houses are being built.

Manlove said his proposal would not halt construction. "If we put the moratorium in effect tomorrow, it would just mean that no new subdivision would go into the pipeline," he said. "Things that are already in motion will continue."

David R. Black, a planner with the county Office of Planning and Zoning, said 313 lots in the two agricultural regions have been approved for development.

"Like Don Quixote"

Manlove said his proposal faces tough opposition. "In all probability, I'm fighting a losing battle," he said, "but I'm trying to do something to help farmers and to preserve our farmland. These are tough times for farmers.

"If we don't do something we will continue to lose farmland, and farming is such a big part of our heritage in this county. Sometimes I feel like Don Quixote fighting the windmills."

Another concern, Manlove said, is that housing development has put stress on the county's water system, roads, schools and emergency services.

"There's too much traffic on most of our back roads," Manlove said. "All of our schools are at or near capacity. The police and other emergency services are being stretched more each year.

"We have a problem here in the county where they drill one well for a new house and the well at the house next door goes dry."

Manlove said development is also straining the county's budget.

"I know for a fact that most residential growth does not pay for itself," he said. "It costs us $3,000 a year to educate a student, and the average house does not pay that much in taxes.

"Our problem is that while 63 percent of the permits for new homes are in areas of the county where we want them, 37 percent are in areas where we don't want them. We will never stop this, but I would like to see it cut to 10 or 15 percent."

Manlove said he's not out to cause trouble. "All I want to do is interrupt the process for 180 days," he said. "This would give us time to look at the problems in the county and to revamp our comprehensive plan."

Protecting the economy

Phyllis Kilby, another County Commission member, said that "from the aspect of creating breathing space to consider possible changes in subdivision regulations, I think this is a very good proposal."

Kilby said agriculture is still a significant part of Cecil County's economy and needs protection.

"You want a viable economy and a diversified economy," she said. "You want small businesses, tourism, agriculture and some industry. You don't want everything in one segment of the economy."

Kilby disagrees with builders who say a moratorium would have an adverse impact on building suppliers and those in related trades.

"I don't think that is realistic," she said. "There is a lot of development already approved in these two zones and in other areas of the county. There is an ample supply of housing for six months and beyond. The builders are not going to run out of work."

Nelson K. Bolender, president of the county commissioners, views the moratorium differently. "Phyllis [Kilby] may disagree, but I think most of our growth is already occurring around our towns," he said.

"My bottom line is that I think we are already taking care of the problem with our comprehensive review committee.

The first hurdle

Bolender said the commissioners will decide Tuesday whether to schedule a public meeting to discuss Manlove's proposal. If they vote not to hold a public hearing, it will mark the end of the legislation.

If they approve the hearing, it will be at least 30 days before the moratorium could become effective.

Disappearing farmland

County officials seem to agree that farms and farmland are disappearing, but they are unsure to what extent.

Joanne Young, the county economic development office's agriculture coordinator, said she doesn't know how many farms the county has. She said the 1997 census put the total at 464.

As a result of Manlove's proposal, she said, her office will compile farm statistics over the next week.

"Everybody wants the numbers," she said. "We need the facts. We need good numbers."

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