Carroll poised for new stage in battle to limit growth

End of freeze brings tougher set of rules for county's developers

May 17, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Developers in Carroll County, long accustomed to some of the state's most permissive development policies, are bracing for the imposition of what some are calling the most restrictive growth-control measures in the region.

The new rules -- which will apply when the county's yearlong freeze on development expires June 10 -- will require developers to meet tighter standards to prove that schools, roads, utilities and emergency services in a community are sufficient before breaking ground on residential projects.

"If you're going to manage growth, part of that is making sure you provide a plan for providing adequate facilities," Carroll County Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said.

Developers see it as a more bureaucratic and convoluted development process.

Carroll County now has the most regulated land market in Maryland, said Tom Ballentine, director of governmental affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

"You're going to find individual counties that have more restrictive schools standards than Carroll," Ballentine said. "You're not going to find other counties that have more layers of restrictions and regulations on the pace of growth" than Carroll County.

That's a big change in policy for county leaders, who were once so fiercely pro-growth that former Gov. Parris N. Glendening threatened to cancel state projects in the county and deny it funds for others if they didn't clamp down on runaway growth. In 1999, state officials cut plans for the Westminster bypass, saying it conflicted with Glendening's "Smart Growth" anti-sprawl policy.

But in 2002, new county leadership shifted the focus on growth. Acting on campaign promises to slow development, the commissioners imposed last year a freeze on residential development proposals and adopted stricter regulations last month.

Their action falls into line with what other local governments across the outer-ring Baltimore and Washington suburbs are doing: further tightening growth restrictions to take control of sprawl.

"This is basically a characteristic of every single suburban community in the Baltimore area in varying degrees," said Anirban Basu, a Baltimore economic consultant who wrote a study of the fiscal impact of Harford County's latest growth control measure. "In each of the jurisdictions, there is an anti-growth movement that's extremely active and makes itself heard."

Harford County has cut off development in more than half of the county where schools are crowded; Anne Arundel is considering reducing its class sizes, which would close five of the county's 12 high school districts to new home construction; and some Baltimore County officials want to strengthen a law preventing new residential projects near crowded schools.

In Carroll, the push for limiting growth became the rallying cry for moderates and reformers during the 2002 countywide elections.

Two county commissioners, Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier, had sparred with state planners over a zoning law that would have allowed residential development on farmland.

The two were soundly defeated in the Republican primary. Incumbent Julia Walsh Gouge and two new officials -- Minnich and Perry L. Jones -- took office, elected on a platform promising a new era of slow growth.

An attitude had long existed in Carroll County "that if a developer came in, regardless of what they wanted to develop, it would be approved," Gouge said.

Developers say that perception had more to do with politics than reality. Glendening, a Democrat reviled in solidly Republican Carroll County, picked on the conservative commissioners to push his Smart Growth agenda, developers say.

But Carroll, whose population is about 163,000, has become one of the fastest-growing counties in the region -- up 2 percent to 3 percent annually in recent years, according to census figures, more than twice the state average.

Residents have long complained that loosely controlled growth has outpaced the county's ability to provide adequate schools, roads, and water and sewer service.

In June last year, six months after taking office, the commissioners decided to halt for a year the processing of all development proposals, while the county re-evaluated its growth regulations. The freeze interrupted about 90 projects -- totaling 1,700 lots -- in various stages of review.

Officials then came up with a three-tiered system, approved last month, to pace new residential development.

Developers will have to meet more rigorous standards, particularly for schools, and prove that their proposed projects won't strain roads, water capacity and other government services. The county will evaluate the projects twice during the review process before plans can move forward.

County planners have established a cautionary category or a "yellow light" for projects that could strain schools or roads. In those cases, the county's planning commission can set conditions on the pace of the proposed development.

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