Compromise in Carroll

July 14, 2005

IN THE southern part of Carroll County, approvals of new development have been stopped in recent years, and for a very good reason: The area is a case study in suburban sprawl. Its population has tripled since 1980, and right now there's not enough water, classroom or road capacities for any more households.

But a developer has dredged up a 6-year-old court ruling allowing the construction of 254 townhouses on 20 acres in congested Eldersburg. And a county Circuit Court judge has backed the developer and is threatening county Planning and Zoning Commission members with contempt charges and jail if they don't approve the townhouses as soon as possible - even though doing so would go against Carroll's regulations requiring that new developments have adequate public facilities in place.

What's happened is an ugly little standoff between the important principle of the rule of law and simple common sense. After all, while clearly not above the law, how could any responsible planning commission approve a big added housing load for an area in which the public facilities are already so overtaxed that prospective development has been shut down?

And what's really made this whole flap a bit nuts is Carroll Circuit Judge Michael M. Galloway's threat of jailing planning commission members, all but one of whom is a volunteer citizen-appointee.

This is a lose-lose conflict that begs for an intelligent compromise - to which Judge Galloway ought to be prodding both sides, rather than threatening well-meaning citizens with hard time.

The commission has a case: The developer didn't submit a site plan within 18 months of the 1999 ruling as required, and the area can't handle the project. Going forward now isn't feasible - or wise.

But the developer, Security Development Corp. of Howard County, has a case, too: It has argued that it can't be blamed for its late submission of a site plan because of other complications involving the county and that it's not to blame for South Carroll's currently inadequate facilities. It also has two court rulings in its favor.

A lot of flexibility is needed here fast - on all sides.

There's absolutely no point in building townhouses with inadequate infrastructure. The county is working to expand water, schools and road capacities in South Carroll over the long term. The developer should scale back the size of the project and adopt a phase-in schedule that matches the county's plans - perhaps in exchange for some concessions from the county.

And Judge Galloway ought to be working with the two sides to shape this or another compromise, instead of using the threat of jail to bludgeon the county planning commission into submission.

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