Carroll tightens growth policy

3-tier system to gauge adequacy of facilities

`Balance, fairness and consistency'

Developers say changes will pinch housing supply

April 21, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

After years of loosely controlled residential growth that led to crowded classrooms and congested roadways, the Carroll County commissioners adopted a stronger growth policy yesterday that would require developers to meet more stringent standards before housing projects are allowed to proceed.

With the unanimous approval of a revised adequate public facilities law, the three commissioners fulfilled their campaign promise to curb growth in a county where a yearlong freeze on residential development expires in less than two months.

The changes represent one of the most significant steps to ensure that growth does not outpace available public facilities since the 1998 adoption of an ordinance known as "concurrency management." The commissioners say the earlier law failed to slow rampant development that created inadequate schools, roads and emergency services.

The new law is a "means of providing balance, fairness and consistency in managing growth in the county," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich. "We're living up to our words."

But developers, who vehemently opposed the yearlong growth freeze, remain skeptical about the revamped adequate facilities law.

"This is the third major rewrite of the county law in 15 years, and the third moratorium in 15 years," said Tom Ballentine, director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

"They are throwing more layers of regulations into land use and construction," said Ballentine. "The real problem has been in execution."

The revised adequate facilities law spells out a three-tiered category of standards -- adequacy, approaching inadequacy and inadequacy -- to measure the capacities of schools, roads, emergency services, and water and sewer services.

Proposed school capacity levels had drawn the most criticism because adopting them would have cost $150 million to $190 million to build new schools. Yesterday, the county commissioners accepted staff recommendations that these standards be readjusted.

Projected enrollment of 109 percent or less of school capacity would be the new threshold for approving development. The range from 110 percent to 120 percent would be considered approaching inadequacy; enrollment in excess of 120 percent of school capacity would be deemed inadequate for new developments.

The earlier law called for an enrollment level of 120 percent or less of capacity as the standard for new development.

A second test

The revised law also calls for a second test to determine whether county facilities are adequate for new development. The county's planning commission would have the authority to deny approval or set conditions on projects that would put facilities into the category of approaching inadequacy.

"With restrictive standards, we won't openly allow housing to go wherever," Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said. "Now we can say to people, `We are working to have adequate facilities, such as schools, water and roads.'"

The new law will not have an impact on development until the freeze lifts June 10. Then all proposed housing projects that have not received planning commission approval -- including those halted by the freeze -- would be subject to the new standards.

Developers whose projects have received certificates from the county saying that their plans would not overwhelm schools, roads and emergency services could be forced to rethink their plans.

"They'll probably be upset about it," Ballentine said.

Developers predicted yesterday that the revised law would slow home construction and consumers could feel the pinch in the housing supply.

"No doubt that it'll control growth," said Martin W. Hackett, vice president of Westminster-based Carroll Land Services. "It'll still take funding to pay for the facilities. As the commissioners have said, `We'll have to catch up and keep up.' It'll slow the pace down."

Joins other counties

In approving the new growth plan, Carroll joins other metropolitan counties that are struggling to keep up with growth. Harford County recently decided to halt preliminary approval for new homes in any school district that exceeds 105 percent of its enrollment capacity. Baltimore County officials are considering strengthening a law preventing new home construction near crowded schools.

In Carroll, the commissioners imposed the freeze on development to allow overhaul of the county's growth laws. It halted acceptance of new subdivision plans and interrupted about 90 projects -- totaling 1,700 lots -- that had passed earlier stages of the review process.

But in the past nine months, the commissioners have been facing pressure from developers who filed lawsuits challenging the freeze.

A Carroll County Circuit Court judge granted four developers temporary relief from the freeze, forcing the county to resume processing their plans. One case is pending before the state's highest court.

Yesterday, the county commissioners also unanimously approved changes to the county's development, subdivision and zoning ordinances.

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