Cecil County officials consider imposing a halt to housing starts

Proposal seeks 6-month moratorium on building

April 27, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Cecil County residents will have their say Wednesday evening on one of the more contentious issues in the county in a number of years - a legislative proposal that would put a six-month halt on new housing starts in more than half the county.

"I anticipate a huge crowd," Commissioner William C. Manlove said of the public meeting to discuss a bill he submitted that is designed to prevent an onslaught of new development projects making their way into the system as the county prepares to review its long-term growth plan.

"It will be an emotional meeting," he said. "There will be people for the proposal. There will be people against the proposal. And there will be people who will come out to scream."

To accommodate the expected audience, the public meeting was moved from the county administration building in Elkton to the Rising Sun High School auditorium. The session is to begin at 7 p.m.

"It's a very controversial measure," said Harry A. Hepbron, another of the county's five commissioners. "It's one of the most controversial issues in this county in a long, long time.

"It deals with property rights," he continued. "If we put a moratorium on, people may not be able to do what they want to do with their property.

"They say it's a six-month moratorium, but who can say it will go away in six months? It could be in place for six years, or more."

Manlove insists that his bill will have minimal impact on the county. "All this does is allow us to take a step back and look at things," he said of the proposal that would stop the paperwork leading up to housing construction while a newly appointed 11-member comprehensive review committee examines the county long-term growth plan.

He said he did not want a flurry of new home construction plans being filed with the county while the committee does its work.

Hepbron disagrees.

"This could have a serious impact on the trade industry," he said. "It's going to hurt the carpenters, the drywall people, the electricians, plumbers, roofers, people who put siding on housing, people who drive the cement trucks.

"The list could go on and on," he said. "These are people who live here, they go to restaurants here, and they buy cars here.

"I'm one county commissioner who does not want to put anybody out of work."

Manlove said a moratorium would not halt home construction, at least not immediately. "If we put the moratorium in effect tomorrow, it would just mean that no new subdivisions would go into the pipeline," he said. "Projects that are already in motion will continue."

If adopted, the moratorium would halt county approval of new housing only in the northern and southern agricultural regions.

David R. Black, a planner in the county Office of Planning and Zoning, said the southern region runs roughly from the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal south to Kent County, and west to the Elk River.

He said the northern zone is more fragmented. It falls in an area north of Interstate 95, to the Pennsylvania border and west to the Susquehanna River.

The two zones account for 63 percent of the county.

One of the things being considered by the review committee is whether to change the housing density level in the agricultural zones.

According to Manlove, 5 acres are needed for the construction of a house in the northern region, and one house per 8 acres in the southern zone.

If homes in a development are clustered and 60 percent of the land is left open, the acreage needed for each house is reduced.

Manlove said a change in the housing density laws would stem the loss of farms while easing the stress development puts on the county's water and sewer system, roads, schools and emergency services.

This month, the county commissioners voted, 3-2, in favor of holding a public meeting on the issue. A no vote by the board at that time would have killed the bill.

Mark H. Guns, who cast the deciding vote on holding the meeting, said it is too soon to say how the commissioners will vote on the bill. "I can definitely say that I have not made up my mind," he said. "But I will be ready to vote by Wednesday.

He said that when the proposal was introduced last month, voter support was 3-1 in favor of the bill. More recently, he said, support has evened out.

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