Surprising council alliance leads to a delay for developers

On a split vote, Merdon and Ulman on same side

planning will have to wait

July 08, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

When the Howard County Council splits its votes, west Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman and Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon rarely are on the same side.

But their surprising alliance Tuesday night means that developers and landowners eager to start planning new home projects for 2008 will have to wait - perhaps until October. The council could reconsider its vote at its last summer meeting July 28.

The council voted, 3-2, to reject the annual housing allocation chart that sets the number of new homes allowed in the county in 2008. Instead of voting with the other two Democrats, a visibly angry Ulman voted with the two Republicans to make a point.

Ulman said later he is tired of seeing Republicans - mainly Merdon - vote against bills for what Ulman believes are political reasons, knowing the Democratic majority will approve them.

"It is easy to vote against things. What citizens are looking for is leadership," Ulman said Wednesday. "I believe it's a consistent strategy of Chris' to simply vote against every significant piece of legislation just so he can complain about it."

Merdon denied a political motive.

"Ken voted against the legislation as well. The only person who made a political vote was Ken," Merdon said.

After rejecting the housing chart, the council voted, 4-1, to kill a separate chart, delaying development around crowded schools in 2008. Under county law, both charts must be approved at the same time. Despite that, Merdon voted for that chart.

Earlier in the meeting, the council voted, 3-2, along party lines to approve a bill removing 100 housing allocations a year from the western county, devoting them instead to affordable housing in the east. County officials had promised the Maryland Land Agricultural Preservation Foundation this year to slow the pace of housing construction in the rural west in return for continued state funding of agricultural preservation.

The fractious council then voted, 3-2, to reject the annual housing allocation chart, but this time with a visibly angry Ulman joining the two Republicans. The allocation chart determines how many houses can be built each year in each part of the county - a way to keep growth to a maximum of about 1,500 new homes a year.

Howard County limits the number of new homes allowed each year through a system of regional allocations. Once builders receive allocations, they must then also pass a school-crowding test under the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. That law delays planning for developments around schools projected to be more than 15 percent over capacity in three years. The time delay is intended to give the county a chance to relieve crowding.

On Wednesday, council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, blamed Merdon for raising last-minute objections to the housing allocation chart, sparking the unusual votes.

"I was taken completely off guard" by Merdon's opposition, Guzzone said. "This just came completely out of the blue." Guzzone also said he "was dumbfounded" by the idea that slowing the pace of growth in the west "isn't a good thing."

Merdon denied any surprises, noting he raised objections to the bill to remove western county allocations at the council's work session last week, though he didn't object specifically to the housing chart resolution.

Before voting Tuesday night, Merdon said that moving allocations from the west would make land there more expensive, and the rules less predictable, while not preserving any parcels. He said he would rather see a more comprehensive approach to preserving land in the western county and on affordable housing - policies that are under development by the Robey administration.

Merdon said the council's rejection of the charts would have "minimal effect," because of the three-year time delay they include.

The series of votes leaves current charts in effect, which means development remains delayed around 11 county schools instead of the six schools the new charts predict will be crowded in three years. In addition, said Marsha L. McLaughlin, the county planning director, plans to add 100 units a year of affordable housing to the eastern county are also now on hold until a new vote can be taken.

"I'm mostly stunned, I think. I'm coming back with the same charts," McLaughlin said.

Developers were dismayed.

"These charts are anxiously awaited every year. There are hundreds and hundreds of housing units being held up. The main thing is, this is supposed to be an orderly process. It's getting unpredictable," said James R. Schulte, president of Security Development, one of the county's largest firms.

Another developer, Donald R. Reuwer Jr., made a different point. When buying land, he said, developers protect themselves from delays with contingency clauses. "Mess with [the charts] and you don't hurt the developer, you hurt the landowners."

The series of votes began with western county Republican Charles C. Feaga's objections to the bill that would remove western housing allocations.

He argued that the move would scare more landowners into selling.

"I think there's a great deal of fear in anyone who has land. They look at it as freezing their right to sell," Feaga said. McLaughlin told the council last week, however, that there are 1,800 already approved building lots in the western county - more than enough to build on for years to come. The bill would merely slow the pace of development over time, she said.

Reuwer agreed.

"I don't object to taking allocations out of the west, because the west doesn't need them. How much land is left?" he said.

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