Bill seeks to give builders incentive

Mixed-use-project office space would yield housing allocations

Howard County

May 04, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

A Howard County councilman is dangling the incentive of housing allocations before developers of mixed-use projects in the hope of spurring construction of office space, particularly on the burgeoning commercial corridor along Route 100.

Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City-Elkridge Republican, is sponsoring a bill that was introduced yesterday to offer developers one housing unit allocation for every 2,000 square feet of office space that is developed in projects that integrate offices, houses and shops.

The builder benefits from the ability to take advantage of Howard's hot housing market, he said, and the county benefits from the higher taxes charged on a finished building.

But leaders in office development say that adding more office stock to a community with an already high office-vacancy rate is not a good idea.

"Oversupply always adversely affects rents," said Rand Griffin, president and chief operating officer of Corporate Office Properties Trust, a Columbia company that manages 130 office properties, including buildings in Columbia Gateway Center.

He said the vacancy rate has been dropping but is still between 14 percent and 15 percent.

"What [Merdon] is not solving is the main thing: demand," Griffin said. "It's very misguided legislation."

Merdon agreed that the private sector would have to bear a burden. "It does put further pressure on existing empty space," he said.

The County Council sets limits on the number of homes that can be constructed each year. In many parts of Howard, there is a long waiting list for these allocations.

The bill would allow builders to "borrow from a future year," Merdon said. The homes would still have to pass the tests for adequate road and school facilities, he said.

Merdon created the legislation with a specific development in mind: the Curtis farm along Route 100 in Columbia. Bozzuto Homes' proposal for the 75-acre property near Snowden River Parkway includes a 28,000- square-foot retail center, 396 townhouses and condominiums and 144,500 square feet of offices.

The county will allow Bozzuto to build between 60 and 82 homes each year between 2007 and 2012, said Jeff Bronow, chief of research for the county Department of Planning and Zoning.

Merdon said he is focused on Route 100 "because it's one of the few potential commercial corridors that we have available." Much of the land along Interstate 70 is controlled by agricultural preservation programs, he said, and cannot be developed.

Charles L. Covell, president of Bozzuto Homes, Inc., said incentives like these promote the principles of Smart Growth - neighborhoods with integrated businesses and jobs, close to transportation.

"Commercial is an important part of the economic basis of a municipality," he said. Local governments have "to embrace office and retail components as a way of balancing the budget."

East Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes, who represents the area, said he wants examine the bill more closely.

Rakes met in March with members of the community who opposed aspects of the Curtis development, such as the proposed retail strip center. Such a bill might put the homeowners surrounding the proposed development "in a more difficult situation," he said.

Nancy Black, who lives across the street in Brothers Partnership, said her community was not concerned about the office component, however.

"At this point, I don't think anyone is disputing the office buildings," she said.

Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said the council will have to take "a very very good look" at the bill.

"If you're going to speed up housing development, you have to be very careful," he said.

Mixed-use districts recently approved for the U.S. 1 corridor would also be eligible for the incentive. However, the County Council already approved an additional 250-unit allocation specifically for that area. The Maryland-Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative could also take advantage of the change for its property in Fulton. There are no development plans now, said attorney Ty Lawson, who represents the group.

The County Council will hear testimony about this and other bills at its public hearing at 7:30 p.m. May 17 in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

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