Developers load up on homes to build

Proposal to tighten APF law seen as spark

March 07, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

If Harford County put a complete halt on the preliminary approval of all new residential development, it would take years before there would be a noticeable decline in homebuilding activity.

There are 8,300 homes in the development pipeline, Peter Gutwald, manager of comprehensive planning, told County Council members Wednesday.

This is a jump of 38 percent over the 6,000 homes that had preliminary approval but had not moved into the construction phase at this time last year.

Gutwald disclosed the gain in preliminary housing approvals during a council work session that included representatives of the public school system and the Department of Planning and Zoning. They met to discuss ways of controlling residential growth to reduce the pressure on crowded schools.

Increase `shocking'

Democratic Councilman Dion F. Guthrie called the jump in preliminary approvals over the past year "shocking."

Guthrie has led the charge to change the county's adequate public facilities - or APF - laws to slow residential development as a way to reduce the size of classes.

"It is obvious what the developers are doing," Guthrie said. "They are loading up projects in the pipeline so that if the APF laws are changed they will have plenty in reserve."

The council is considering APF legislation that would halt preliminary approval of new homes in every school district that has a school exceeding 105 percent of its designed enrollment capacity.

The bill is sponsored by five of the seven County Council members, enough to override a veto by the county executive if needed. Sponsors include council President Robert S. Wagner, Robert G. Cassilly, Richard C. Slutzky, Cecelia M. Stepp and Guthrie.

In October, the council voted to reduce the enrollment figure used to trigger a shutdown of preliminary approvals to 115 percent from 120 percent.

Guthrie said that at the present rate of construction, the industry has enough projects in the pipeline to last nearly five years.

Del. Barry Glassman, the Republican chairman of the Harford County legislative delegation, said the council might have to look at limiting building permits as a way of controlling housing growth.

Gutwald said that 4,000 of the homes in the pipeline have gone to the recorded lot stage of the county approval process. "This means all they have to do is pull the permits" to begin construction, he said.

He said the number of recorded lots has doubled in the past year.

A `foot in the door'

Gutwald said the big jump in preliminary approvals and the even bigger percentage increase in recorded lots did not surprise him.

"There has been a lot of talk about changing the APF laws, and it looks like people are moving forward with their projects," he said. "They wanted to make sure they had their foot in the door."

Clark Turner, president of Bel Air-based Clark Turner Cos., said he had preliminary approvals on all his proposed housing projects, but he said that they were for senior-targeted housing that would not have an impact on schools.

Guthrie said he is considering another bill that would put a limit on the number of homes that could come out of the pipeline and be built each year.

He said he has not yet talked with his colleagues on the council about the possibility.

Guthrie said his plan is to limit the number of homes that could be built to 300 units a year in an area closed to new preliminary approvals. He said that some areas that are closed to such approvals have 2,000 or more homes in the pipeline that can be built.

A long process

Susan Stroud Parker, a spokeswoman for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said there is no connection between the increase in preliminary housing approvals and a possible change in the law.

She said the subdivision process takes so long that many of these projects were started several years ago. "It's just a coincidence that we are seeing so many come to the spigot at this time," she said.

Cassilly said the increase in preliminary approvals reinforces his belief that the council should move to lower the APF threshold to 105 percent to trigger a halt in housing approvals in one step, rather than slowly reducing it from 115 percent.

"With that many houses in the pipeline, any developer screaming `bloody murder' is crying wolf," he said. "With that many houses in the pipeline, there is not going to be any economic impact on the county of lowering the APF number for some time."

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