Builders seek thaw in Carroll freeze

Developers await rulings on year of growth curbs

commissioners `confident'

October 21, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Hardly a week goes by when the Carroll County commissioners don't deal with issues related to the growth freeze they enacted four months ago.

One woman asked them for an exemption because she couldn't afford medical bills for a grandmother stricken with Alzheimer's. The Westminster fire chief asked them not to grant an exemption for a planned senior home because his company would struggle to handle the additional calls it would generate.

Meanwhile, developers and land-use attorneys are doing their darndest to have the freeze overturned. They've filed more than 30 challenges to the county's board of zoning appeals and several in Circuit Court. And now they're awaiting a ruling that could come as early as today and could effectively decide the matter - at least for now.

The commissioners say the yearlong freeze, one of the toughest growth restrictions in the region, was needed to allow county planners to develop recommendations for overhauling land-use policies and slowing development in a county with the highest rate of growth of any in metropolitan Baltimore. The freeze abruptly halted 90 projects and delayed potential development on about 1,700 more - and has, according to one veteran attorney, provoked the fiercest legal backlash he's seen in Carroll County in 25 years.

"It's a pretty significant outcry," said attorney Clark Shaffer, who represents nearly 20 clients who contested the freeze before the board of zoning appeals and who are considering further court challenges.

Any day, Carroll County Circuit Court Judge Michael M. Galloway is expected to render his decision on what is probably the opponents' best chance for a meaningful victory. Eldersburg developer James Kohler has asked the court for an injunction that would prohibit the county from enforcing the freeze against his planned 21-unit housing development.

If Galloway grants the injunction, a raft of similar requests would probably follow, land-use attorneys predict. If Galloway rules against the request, developers might be forced to find new strategies or wait out the last eight months of the freeze.

"Beyond purely legal terms, it will give one side a boost in terms of attitude," Shaffer said.

The commissioners have been quiet about the legal fray. But Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said, "We feel confident we stand on solid legal ground."

Minnich and colleagues Perry L. Jones Jr. and Julia Walsh Gouge won election last year on promises to keep growth from outpacing the county's ability to provide services. Carroll's population, about 160,000, grew by 2.8 percent in the year ending July 2002 - a higher rate than in any other county in the Baltimore metropolitan area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

After six months in office, the commissioners agreed that development affecting schools, water and traffic should be frozen to allow county planners to rework so-called "adequate facilities" laws. In June, they passed the freeze, which closed the door to new subdivisions on land covered by adequate-facilities laws. It also delayed development on about 1,700 lots that passed earlier stages in the county's subdivision review process.

With the freeze, the county joined several others in the region 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 an agricultural zoning that allows only one house per 20 acres.

The Carroll commissioners' vote prompted an immediate outcry from developers and landowners.

The commissioners have hardly budged in response. They have granted a handful of exemptions to assisted-living homes and to property owners who said they would face financial ruin if blocked from subdividing their land for small developments. But that's it.

Carroll Planning Director Steve Horn and the commissioners say the legal wrangling has not distracted staff efforts to make substantive changes to growth laws. Horn said he hopes to wrap up work on most proposed revisions by January. Public hearings would follow, and the commissioners would probably vote in late May or early June.

Horn has said he will almost certainly recommend significant changes in the way the county determines whether a subdivision will put a strain on roads, volunteer firehouses, schools and water supplies. He said he is contemplating pushing adequacy tests for such facilities later in the development review cycle and making the standards harder to reach. For example, schools might be considered too crowded when they reach 100 percent capacity instead of the current 120 percent standard.

The commissioners say tougher standards are at the core of what they hope to accomplish with the freeze.

"The big problem with the old plan was that the county blinked when it was time to sit down and discuss how to measure and enforce adequacy," Minnich said.

Gouge said she is encouraged by the progress, but believes there is work to be done.

"This is not something you pick up and lay down again in day," she said. "You just have to think that when we have an end product, it will be much better than what we had before."

But the conflict might not be resolved by the expiration of the freeze in June.

Developers fear that the commissioners will not only toughen standards but retroactively apply them to many or all of the developments affected by the freeze. At least some developers who thought they were clear to proceed could be blocked for much longer than the remaining eight months of the freeze. Horn has said it is possible that the new standards will be applied retroactively.

The likely result of such a move? Another onslaught of lawsuits, attorneys say.

"I think people will be claiming damages for every lot lost," Shaffer said.

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