Swift growth creates strain on resources

Pressure: School crowding and traffic congestion vex county leaders struggling to accommodate an influx of new residents.

October 26, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

WITH ITS ROLLING hills, picturesque horse and dairy farms and charming small towns, Harford County continues to attract more than its fair share of residents.

In terms of population, the county is growing at more than double the rate of the metropolitan area, which also takes in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll, and Howard counties and Baltimore City.

At the end of last year, 227,000 people lived in the county, according to Maryland Department of Planning figures.

"This was an increase of 2.2 percent over the year 2001," said John Scotten Jr., the county's deputy treasurer.

By comparison, he said, the population of the entire Baltimore region grew by 0.8 percent last year. The state posted a 1.3 percent increase in its population last year.

As more people move in, houses are popping up on farms where cows have roamed for more than 100 years, and Harford is steadily being transformed into a bedroom community of Baltimore.

Scotten said that some sections are growing faster than others. He said Fallston, Abingdon and Joppa are seeing more housing developments than places such as Darlington, Dublin and Whiteford.

No matter where they live, residents are feeling the county's growing pains, which are putting increased pressure on roads as well as the school system.

Some school buildings are being pushed to their limits by increased enrollments. Fallston Middle School, on Route 152, is handling nearly 30 percent more students than it was designed to hold.

Parents have complained that the crowding has led to increased fighting among students and forced some classes to be held in the hallways.

Part of the problem springs from Harford's reputation as an affordable place to live.

Scotten estimated that new homes, including single-family outlets, townhouses and condominiums, sell for an average of about $174,000. County officials say this is well below the estimated $250,000 selling price needed for the household to offset the cost of county services, such as schools, libraries, police and fire protection.

There are signs that this is beginning to change.

Clark Turner, president of Clark Turner Cos., said that condominiums being built at the company's Water's Edge Corporate Campus are selling for as much as $400,000.

The development is on the Bush River in Belcamp, at the site of the former Bata Shoe Co. manufacturing plant.

He said townhouses priced at about $500,000 each were being sold before they could be built.

This is the kind of development that county officials say will help pay for new schools and ease crowding that County Executive James M. Harkins says has reached a "crisis" stage.

Schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas has said the current gap between the revenue generated by a house and the cost of services supplied to a house has been a factor in the school system's low spending per pupil.

Harford County spends between $6,500 and $7,000 a year on each student. Only Caroline County spends less. Montgomery County spends about $11,000 a year on each student.

County Council President Robert S. Wagner said this trend can't continue and has asked the county's legislative delegation to the General Assembly to look for new funding sources to pay for the construction of new schools.

The population growth has not only made roads more congested. It has also increased the danger of commutes.

Every day, motorists are putting their safety at risk when negotiating the intersection of Interstate 95 and Route 24, including nearby Route 924.

Rapid growth in the Abingdon area has overtaken the road system and created the most dangerous intersection in the county.

Traffic is so congested during morning and evening rush hours that it is not unusual for motorists to sit through two traffic light cycles of Route 24 and Route 924, which is only three-tenths of a mile from the southbound ramp of I-95.

State Highway Administration officials say there are 68 accidents at the I-95 intersection for every 100 million vehicle-miles traveled. This compares with 56 accidents for every 100 million vehicle-miles at similar intersections across the state.

The area has averaged more than one accident a week for the past three years.

Some are deadly.

At least three fatal accidents have occurred at the intersection since 1999.

A state highway official said there has been a tremendous population explosion in the area over the past 15 years and the roads have not been able to keep with pace with the flow of traffic.

Improvements to the intersection are estimated to cost about $175 million and the work is not expected to start until 2007 or later.

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