Carroll proposes limiting growth

Commissioners consider freeze on residential, commercial development

April 25, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The Carroll County commissioners moved yesterday toward freezing a significant portion of the county's residential and commercial growth for up to a year, hoping to toughen existing restrictions on housing developments while reserving land for new industry.

The proposals, which drew immediate opposition from developers and property rights advocates, represent the most drastic steps the commissioners have taken to follow through on promises to slow growth since their terms began late last year.

More than 1,000 plans in the development pipeline would be delayed and hundreds more could be prevented from being submitted, affording the county time to broaden and toughen existing land-use laws, the commissioners said.

"You can't fix a plane while it's in the air," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.

If the commissioners adopt the recommended freezes, Carroll would join other metropolitan counties in taking bold steps to stem growth. Under one proposal announced yesterday, Carroll County would not accept any new subdivision plans for a year and would delay processing any existing plans that haven't been approved by the planning commission, also for a year.

The other proposal would delay for nine months any commercial developments on land zoned for industrial use. The commissioners say they want to eliminate scores of "conditional zoning" uses that they say have allowed strip malls and big-box stores to occupy land ripe for more lucrative industrial development.

County officials said that about 13 percent of the county's 2,700 acres of industrial land were used for commercial or business ventures between 1983 and last year.

"I believe there are many industrial properties out there that are currently being identified for retail uses that we can't afford to lose," said county zoning administrator Neil Ridgely, who recommended the nine-month delay to the commissioners. The delay on commercial development would allow county zoning officials time to rewrite the codes that allow such uses, the commissioners said.

The commissioners unanimously voted to hold a public hearing next month on the proposals.

All three commissioners campaigned last year on promises to slow growth so that it would not overwhelm county schools, roads, water capacity and emergency services. All three also promised they would bolster the county's tax base by keeping commercial sprawl away from parcels of land that would be attractive to job-rich industries. They handily defeated a slate of more conservative candidates, who espoused more development-friendly views.

Carroll's population, about 160,000, grew by 2.8 percent between July 2001 and July last year -- more than any other county in the Baltimore metropolitan area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

With the freeze proposals -- which could temporarily bar residential development on about one in three buildable lots in Carroll -- the county would join several neighbors that have implemented aggressive growth controls.

Large swaths of Anne Arundel and Howard counties are closed to development because of crowded schools and other inadequacies.

Baltimore County strictly adheres to an urban-rural demarcation line and agricultural zoning that allows only one house per 20 acres.

A temporary freeze on some development is in effect in Mount Airy.

Fierce opposition to the Carroll County proposal surfaced immediately yesterday.

By delaying subdivision proposals that have already met adequate-facilities standards, the commissioners would be breaking a contract with county landowners, said Dick Hull, a Westminster developer and one of the county's most outspoken property rights advocates.

"The plan we have now is doing what it's supposed to do if you would just give it time," Hull said. "This is unnecessary."

Carroll planning director Steve Horn and the commissioners disagreed, noting that current adequate-facilities rules have failed to meet a six-year-goal, set in 1997, of restricting growth to 1,000 new residential lots per year. The commissioners have said the rapid residential growth no longer generates enough revenue to pay for the increased demand for services it creates and have blamed the county's impending budget woes on that failing.

"We cannot afford this growth that's going on now," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.

Hull also criticized the plan to halt commercial development on industrial lands, saying the county doesn't have enough remaining land zoned for business and commercial use.

"If we're going to have this delay, we're going to have to get real aggressive about giving these businesses a place to go," he said. "Because right now, they don't have anywhere to go."

"I don't want to see businesses not move to Carroll because there is no land open," added Wayne Barnes, a farmer and chairman of the county relations committee of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce.

The commissioners said such reservations won't be an impediment.

"We've talked a long, long time about conditional uses and every time, the same complaints come up," Gouge said. "But in the meantime, more and more land is being used up. ... The future of the county is at stake."

Shortly after taking office in December, the commissioners hired new staff members such as Horn and Ridgely to implement their goals to curb growth. They also appointed a task force to begin reworking the county's adequate-facilities laws. But they had not taken aggressive actions to slow growth before yesterday.

Horn said the yearlong delay would allow the commissioners' appointed task force time to address all areas of adequate-facilities law, from requirements for road and school capacity to the way the county tracks the number of lots being added every year.

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