County moves to increase affordable housing

At same time, it seeks to tighten growth limits in the rural west

July 01, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The Robey administration is moving to boost affordable housing in eastern Howard County by up to 100 units a year while simultaneously tightening growth restrictions in the rural west -- part of a deal with state officials to preserve eligibility for state farmland preservation aid.

The complicated transaction will not begin for at least another year under provisions of a bill scheduled for a County Council vote Tuesday.

Although the two goals are linked in the bill, they are prompted by separate concerns, according to Marsha L. McLaughlin, the county planning director. Spiraling home prices have closed middle-income buyers out of Howard's housing market, pushing government to help, while expensive new homes are rising too fast in the rural west, prompting state planning officials to threaten decertification of the county's agricultural preservation funding if something is not done.

Meanwhile, the county's Housing Commission has been prevented from developing moderate-income housing on land it owns in North Laurel by the county's complex growth controls, which limit how many permits can be issued for new homes in each of five geographic planning areas each year.

The proposed change in the law "does have a significant impact on what we're doing," said Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director, who is trying to promote more affordable housing for civil servants and other middle-income working families.

Howard limits the pace of construction by a system of regional housing allocations and a 1992 law called the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which delays new developments around crowded schools and congested intersections. Builders must line up to get an allocation and then qualify under the APFO law before they can begin construction. McLaughlin said that in Elkridge, for example, demand has been so high that all the annual allocations are spoken for until 2013.

Howard officials agreed in March to remove 100 housing allocations annually from the rural west. McLaughlin said she planned to begin gradually -- removing 60 in fiscal 2008 and 100 each year after that to protect those already waiting for them. McLaughlin also wants to limit the right to transfer zoning density from one western parcel to another.

Both were part of a deal with the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation. In turn, the foundation's 12-member board of trustees agreed to allow Howard to continue getting state agricultural preservation money for another two years after threatening to decertify the county over state planners' concerns that Howard has not done enough to preserve rural land.

But McLaughlin told the County Council at a work session late Tuesday that while removing future allocations in the west will "slow the pace of land being subdivided," that will make little difference in the pace of building. McLaughlin said there are 1,800 unused, recorded building lots in the west that have been approved for construction. Market conditions have delayed use of those lots, she said.

"This stuff hurts," said west Columbia County Councilman Ken Ulman, a Democrat, rubbing his forehead as he tried to absorb the complicated formulas and incentives.

On the affordable-housing front, the county has exceptions to the regional system that provides an extra 250 allocations a year each for moderately priced senior housing and units aiding redevelopment of the U.S. 1 corridor. McLaughlin said the 100 new annual allocations would be available for any projects that cannot be built by using the other categories. Offering builders a quicker route to construction might result in more moderate-income units being built, McLaughlin said. Officially, Howard's price for a moderate townhouse is now $152,000 for people with incomes between about $50,000 and $80,000.

Western County Republican Charles C. Feaga is worried that removing allocations from his section might deprive some longtime landowners of the chance to sell to finance their retirements.

"I have some problems with this," he said, adding that he does not object, however, to providing more affordable housing.

But County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said he favors reducing allocations in the west regardless of other moves.

John Taylor, a western county resident and a slow-growth advocate who sat on the county's APFO citizens committee, said he is opposed to the changes.

"The bill doesn't really decrease density in the west," he complained, because it doesn't change zoning. "I think the bill is yet another density increase hiding behind `affordable housing,' " he said.

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