Facing the development squeeze

Housing: As open land becomes scarce and prices continue to rise, affordability becomes more an issue.

March 21, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Howard County is a county of superlatives.

It boasts one of the highest median incomes and percentages of college-educated residents in the country, as well as low unemployment and crime rates.

Last year, Howard communities such as Columbia and Ellicott City earned spots on lists such as Money magazine's "Best Places to Live" in the Northeast. Sports Illustrated also honored Howard County last year as a top "sportstown" for the number of recreation opportunities available here.

Quality of life can often be the deciding factor when companies - and families - consider relocating to Howard.

"It's a good place, a smart place, a safe place," said Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of Howard's Economic Development Authority.

But with median prices for single-family homes pushing higher than $300,000, the struggle to meet the needs of Howard's lower-income and aging residents often comes head-to-head with the county's hopes for growth.

More than 30 years ago, Howard County began its evolution from a rural outpost halfway between teeming Baltimore and Washington to a full-fledged destination of its own.

The county was originally part of northern Anne Arundel County, splitting off to become the Howard District and later incorporating as Howard County in 1851.

Many of Howard's farmers knew that growth would come, based on the area's central location, said local historian Joetta M. Cramm. Roads such as U.S. 40 and U.S. 29 were built in the 1940s and 1950s, improving access to nearby cities.

"As the roads got better, we got closer," she said.

Development focused in Ellicott City and Elkridge until the creation of the planned community of Columbia.

James W. Rouse, Columbia's developer, accumulated a little more than 22 square miles of land and broke ground on a new way of life for thousands that call it home today. Columbia is filled with amenities such as walking paths, small nearby shopping centers and open space.

Columbia boomed in the 1980s and 1990s as new villages were established. Combined with further residential development in Ellicott City and Elkridge, Howard County's population has grown to more than 260,000 people.

And it will continue to increase, with phased mixed-use developments such as Emerson and Maple Lawn Farms in southern Howard expected to create more than 2,300 homes and 3 million square feet of commercial space.

The county was motivated to preserve elements of its rural heritage by restricting development. In 1993, the Howard County Council reduced housing density in the county's western 90,000 acres. It also restricted the extension of public water and sewer service beyond the current boundaries.

Given the moratorium, state planners predicted Howard would reach "build-out" by 2020. As undeveloped land grows scarce in the county, the new frontiers for economic and residential growth are revitalization zones.

Last month, the County Council adopted new zoning for U.S. 1, which county officials hope will spark economic renewal. Mixed-use districts feature residential, retail and office space, as well as facilities to attract technology industries.

But the U.S. 1 corridor, which stretches from Interstate 95 to Howard's border with Anne Arundel County, is home to mobile home parks that represent some of the most affordable housing available within this expensive county.

As the land beneath mobile homes increases in value - and the park owners are tempted to sell - residents may be forced to move.

"I think it's going to be a domino effect," said Tiffany Davis, who is helping to organize fellow residents of Aladdin Village on U.S. 1, the owners of which have sought rezoning to allow construction of offices, shops and apartments. "Once - and if - Aladdin goes, the other parks are going to go."

Some of Howard's older neighborhoods, such as some areas of Columbia's first villages, also are in line for revitalization.

Howard's population is aging, as well. State predictions show the number of senior citizens is expected to increase to more than 47,000 by 2020, according to Howard's 2000 General Plan.

Nearly 2,400 homes for seniors were in the approval process for development between fall of 2002 and fall of last year, according to a report by the Department of Planning and Zoning.

"The reality is most of us want to stay where we are," said Phyllis Madachy, director of the Office on Aging. "If not in our own homes, we want to stay in communities that we choose" - perhaps close to children or religious facilities.

A 2001 county report indicates that 70 percent of 40- to 60-year- olds surveyed planned to retire in Howard County; 80.6 percent of people ages 60 or older had similar plans, Madachy added.

Although not everyone may follow through with those intentions, "that's still strong enough to make us think this is as desirable a community to age in as it was to many young families with young kids," she said.

County officials are studying the future need for health care, transportation and housing, which will affect how land and resources should be distributed.

The scarcity of land may also drive life in Howard in a new direction: up. Altaire on the Lake, a new development recently advertised in several Howard newspapers, is described as a 25-story luxury condominium building on the Columbia waterfront with commercial space on its lower levels.

"I think well-planned and well-situated taller buildings can be a way to continue to grow ... with increased land pressures," said County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat.

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