Infill needed

May 17, 2004

THE COMMISSIONERS — A REVOLUTION is under way in Carroll County. A new set of county commissioners, elected in 2002 after a hard-fought campaign against the county's laissez-faire growth stance, has been enacting rules to induce a more sustainable pace of development in the once rural, now booming suburb.

The commissioners - Julia Walsh Gouge, Perry L. Jones Jr. and Dean L. Minnich - have passed new plans to protect Carroll's strained water supply, to rebalance its tax base by limiting conversion of industrial land to commercial use, and to deny approvals for homebuilding at earlier stages of school crowding. This last step, which goes into effect in June, follows a yearlong freeze on county homebuilding.

These moves - to catch up with the impact of years of runaway growth on Carroll's schools, roads, water supply and county finances - have met with continuing resistance and even lawsuits. In the face of that, the commissioners should be lauded for fulfilling their campaign promises by systematically tackling growth management.

At the same time, their victories so far are akin to the start of a prolonged cleanup of a bad train wreck: the mess created by the sudden arrival of too many households. That's much the case all along the periphery of the Baltimore metropolitan area - from Carroll across the Bay Bridge to Queen Anne's County, where the state just shut down development because local officials let sewage treatment capacity fall behind growth. To pay for the infrastructure to support growth, one Baltimore suburb after another is tightening its controls or enacting new development fees or taxes.

This speaks, of course, to the continuing thrust away from the city itself. Over the last 20 years, the city's tax base has fallen from 23 percent of the region's to just 11 percent. In that time, Howard County's tax base has gone from less than half that of Baltimore's to more than 35 percent larger than the city's.

As we've said before, coping with such a vast shift in wealth requires costly investment not just in outlying schools, roads and pipelines but ultimately in revitalizing the region's core. In recent years, there has been growing talk in state and local planning circles of fostering more such infill development. Unfortunately, far too much of the action on managing growth still remains merely suburban reaction - vs. concrete moves to reverse the centrifugal migration.

A recent state survey of Baltimore's suburbs found enough building lots in designated growth areas to accommodate 20 years of growth. In line with that, the governor's "Priority Places" strategy - still being developed - seeks to channel state resources into existing communities. But particularly needed is more state support for infrastructure upgrades to accommodate infill housing, particularly near transit and highway nodes in Baltimore and immediately around it.

Under the banner of housing affordability - the average new single-family home in Maryland cost $386,000 last year ($563,000 in Howard County) - the state homebuilders association is now trying to build a political coalition for such incentives. The timing is right: Growth-control revolutions, as in Carroll, are certainly profound, but an infill revolution must soon follow.

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