Paying the price of popularity

Growth: Anne Arundel is becoming a destination, but that brings difficulties, such as a lack of affordable housing.

May 16, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

With home prices soaring and new businesses opening every month, Anne Arundel County has never seemed a more popular destination. But the growth brings its own complications: crowded schools, snarled traffic and a lack of affordable housing for middle-class workers among them.

The county is conveniently located between Washington and Baltimore and features more than 500 miles of shoreline. These factors make Anne Arundel land some of the most valuable in Maryland. Average home prices have cleared $300,000 in recent months, with waterfront homes routinely selling for more than $1 million.

Realtors in the county share stories about luxury homes that draw between five and 10 bids the day they go on sale. At the Saddlebrooke development in Gambrills, one couple recently camped out in the family car for 10 days to be first in line for a new home that was to go on sale for $550,000.

The pressure is being felt all over, from communities to the north such as Gambrills and Pasadena to Washington commuter towns such as Davidsonville to the South County waterfront in Edgewood and Mayo.

Droves of well-paid commuting professionals are moving into communities that, until recently, were known as working- or middle-class areas.

U.S. Census Bureau figures from 2000 show that roughly 70 percent of the county's working residents are in management, sales and other office-oriented fields. Residents boast a median household income of $61,768 and commute 29 minutes to work. (Anne Arundel County does not have a public transportation system but shares the cost of running bus lines with Annapolis and plans to work with the city to extend bus service to South County.)

But while the population has increased from 206,634 in 1960 to 489,656 in 2000, infrastructure has lagged. Four of 12 school districts are shut down to housing construction except projects for senior citizens because of a shortage of classroom space.

Though the booming housing market is good for builders and real estate agents, county employees such as teachers, police offices and firefighters say they cannot find affordable houses.

County leaders are searching for policies to address the problem. An appointed task force recently submitted a report to County Executive Janet S. Owens recommending that she designate a full-time advocate for "work force housing." The report also suggested the county redevelop existing communities such as Harundale, Glen Burnie and Brooklyn Park to make them more attractive to young professionals.

County Council members Pamela G. Beidle and Barbara D. Samorajczyk are working on legislation that would require 10 percent of all units in new subdivisions and redevelopment projects to be work force housing. The bill, modeled on Montgomery County's 30-year-old program for creating affordable housing, would reward developers with extra lots.

Housing costs represent one side of growth in the county. Planning officials also are working on comprehensive revisions to the county zoning code and its subdivision regulations.

Owens hired Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. away from Howard County in 2002 hoping that he would reform the land-use department. The revised codes are the first major steps in that process, Rutter said.

"The one main thrust is that we want it to be more user-friendly," he said of the code, which hasn't been fully revised since 1971. "The current document can be so unfriendly, referring you from one section to another and presenting so many inconsistencies."

Rutter is moving away from a planning philosophy, created under former County Executive John G. Gary, which broke the county into 16 small areas. The county still has eight small-area plans left to complete, but Rutter has criticized the plans, saying that, as a whole, they've created as much confusion as order. He said he is more interested in plans that address the overall nature and pace of growth in the county.

Though developers and land-use attorneys don't favor all of Rutter's proposed changes, they applaud his efforts to bring order to the county's land-use policies.

Rutter said he would present the proposed revisions to the County Council this month and expects the council to begin discussing the changes next month.

On the economic development front, county officials expressed relief in March when an Owings Mills developer announced plans to buy and rehabilitate the abandoned Parole Plaza shopping center.

Greenberg Commercial Corp. agreed to buy the strip mall outside Annapolis for $25 million and plans to transform the long-struggling commercial site into a $300 million mix of retail stores, office towers and residential units. The purchase could end years of uncertainty surrounding the 34-acre property, considered one of the most valuable commercial parcels in Anne Arundel County.

The developer hopes to break ground in 12 to 18 months and open the first wave of stores, offices and residential units in two to three years.

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