Debating stalled development

Allocations: The Howard district system's limits on homebuilding in the county's southeast have some developers and homeowners stymied and hoping for change as the County Council considers a review.

October 11, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Call it allocation envy.

In Howard County, the government doles out permission to build new homes by area to control growth. Columbia has hundreds of housing allocations, while Elkridge and the southeast county have none.

With land values skyrocketing in the Baltimore area's most expensive suburb, having housing allocations can mean the difference between building expensive new homes now or waiting for years. Developers and landowners with none want some.

Developers such as Donald R. Reuwer Jr. want some of those Columbia allocations for deals like the one he's crafting with Dominick Tardogno, 47, who wants to sell his 2-acre Elkridge homestead for construction of five homes and use the profits to move his family of four to California.

To get a long-coveted job as a train conductor in San Luis Obispo, Tardogno said he has to move now, but without enough cash up front to relocate his wife, Jane, son Dominick, 10, and daughter Maria, 8, it will be difficult.

"I had to make this work for everybody," said Tardogno. "I would like to be able to sell the land for development. The longer the delay, the less [cash] up front," he said.

Elkridge has public utilities and county laws controlling school crowding that will delay projects even with allocations, so, Reuwer argues, why not let the market take its course?

Rouse Co. officials strongly oppose Reuwer's reasoning, arguing that they take longer to plan quality projects and shouldn't lose allocations. County officials also are wary of tinkering with a system designed to give communities, students, officials and developers one thing they all crave: predictability.

Under Howard's system, a new home project in Elkridge or the southeast would have to wait until about 2010 to move forward, while plans for Columbia or the western county can proceed without delay.

Reuwer and others argue that the county's system of dividing the average maximum of 1,750 new homes allowed annually among the county's five planning districts has become skewed since the General Plan was crafted in 1999, leaving landowners in Elkridge and the southeast county unable to develop even small lots, while Rouse sits on 573 allocations in Columbia.

"Time changes everything," Reuwer said, charging that the division of allocations benefits one major developer -- the Rouse Co. "When you divide a county into five regions, you're creating artificial shortages in some regions."

With major highway access and public water and sewer, Elkridge is better able to absorb new homes than the rural western county, Reuwer argued. Other developers, such as Security Development Corp. principal James R. Rob Moxley, and builder Harry L. "Chip" Lundy Jr. agree with Reuwer.

"The landowners are the ones who suffer. All they know is when they reach retirement they'd like to sell and move, and they can't," Moxley said.

Rouse Co. Vice President Dennis Miller, Columbia's general manager, is opposed to moving allocations -- especially because Rouse wants to build 2,100 more homes in Columbia.

"The original reason [for the laws] was so [the county] could manage and direct where they want growth to go," he said. "I absolutely feel as if [Rouse would be] negatively impacted," if allocations were moved.

Elkridge and the southeast county have no new housing allocations available until the end of the decade, while Columbia and the rural west have an excess. Even plans for affordable housing on county-owned land in Savage face delays until 2009 because the big mixed-use developments of Emerson -- a Rouse project -- and Maple Lawn Farms have cornered the housing allocations in the southeast.

Howard County Planning Director Marsha McLaughlin said she knows some developers are unhappy and have been talking to County Council members. She plans a mid-decade review of the situation next spring, she said.

"There are clear bottlenecks at this point in time," McLaughlin said, because the allocations were divided based on projections made five years ago. But she is cautious in approaching the subject.

"One of the things we're most concerned about is we don't want to change the rules for someone who is in line [for housing allocations] now."

School officials and others are wary of moving allocations from one district to another lest they affect crowding in schools.

"Why would you move allocations into an area that's already overburdened?" asked John Taylor, a slow-growth advocate who served for years on the county's Adequate Public Facilities Committee. "It's turning the law into Swiss cheese," he said.

Although the county's adequate public facilities law would delay home construction around crowded schools, it would do so for only a maximum of four years. School board Chairman Courtney Watson said that eventually, the crowding could increase, forcing redistricting or expensive construction.

Moving new home allocations from Columbia, where classrooms seats are available, to Elkridge would be problematic, said school system demographer David Drown.

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