Tally sought of land available for housing

State to offer localities help with staffing, data

Panel could request legislation

August 29, 2004|By Scott Waldman | Scott Waldman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Local governments in Maryland will be asked to conduct an inventory of land available for new housing under a deal agreed to by a state task force this month.

The move marks the first step in identifying how much land builders can use for housing during the coming years. Maryland builders say construction limits in several jurisdictions have pushed land prices to all-time highs and put the cost of a new home out of reach for many.

County and municipal leaders have resisted efforts to be forced to tally available property, saying it could tax smaller jurisdictions without the staff or resources to conduct such efforts. And some environmental advocates would prefer builders address suburban sprawl concerns by constructing homes in urban areas where infrastructure is in place.

The task force, composed of homebuilders, environmental advocates and local government figures, worked to find a middle ground, said Aaron Tomarchio, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Planning.

The group decided to make the inventory a voluntary effort among the jurisdictions. The task force will give the program two years to see if local governments provide the information. If it's not successful, the group will lobby for state legislation to make it a mandatory effort.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed an executive order Aug. 19 calling on the Department of Planning to work with county governments and town municipalities to determine the amount of available land on which homes could be built. The state will assist the venture by providing staff members and databases, Tomarchio said.

In addition, the order will allow for more meetings of the task force, which was appointed in the fall to determine a reliable method for identifying available land. The task force also will track inventory progress.

Homebuilders have been pushing for years for a land inventory. Developers and builders have warned that finding buildable parcels has become more difficult in the face of Maryland's latest housing boom and limits on development.

"If you don't really know what you have, then you can't really plan on where you should try and place future construction," said Patrick Costello, vice president of Forty West Builders Inc. in Ellicott City.

The average price of a new single-family home in Baltimore and the five counties surrounding it reached $476,406 in June - 56 percent more than this time last year, according to the Meyers Group, a residential real estate research service.

According to the Home Builders Association of Maryland, the construction of 1,000 single-family homes generates 2,448 full-time jobs. Those 1,000 homes lead to $79.4 million in wages and $42.5 million in combined federal, state and local revenues, HBAM said.

Smaller builders, which construct fewer than 100 homes a year, will be hit the hardest by the lack of buildable lots, said Dan Gregory, general sales manager for Beazer Homes. Beazer, which built about 400 homes in Maryland last year, is the sixth-largest builder in the country.

Gregory said consumers are being forced to pay more for new housing as land prices rise.

"There's not as much selection out there," Gregory said.

David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said he is pleased with the compromise. Planners like the idea of a voluntary program, he said, but weren't interested in the state forcing them to inventory the land, calling it an unfunded mandate.

"Pursuing a legislative effort to mandate these inventories would create a dangerous precedent for future mandates," Bliden said.

Counties that need to find available land, said Bliden, can do so without having another law thrust upon them.

"Where there is a true need, there will be action," Bliden said.

Determining the amount of available land is useful to environmental groups as well. In the past, differing figures have hampered dialogue, said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a group devoted to responsible growth in Maryland.

"If we have one agreed-upon set of numbers, we can communicate much more effectively in the future," Schmidt-Perkins said.

Tomarchio remains optimistic that the compromise will work. Baltimore, Harford and Montgomery counties have begun inventorying their land, he said.

"In government," Tomarchio said, "if you can get something to work without legislation, we view it as a success."

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