Political spat appears at an end

Pair to ask reconsideration of council's housing chart vote

Development in western county at issue

July 22, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A political spat among Howard County Council members that threatened to derail otherwise routine development planning appears likely to be resolved this month, according to both council Democrats and Republicans.

Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, and Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said they will ask for reconsideration of a 3-2 council vote taken July 5 to reject the annual housing allocation chart. Both men voted to kill the chart, but for different reasons. Now both want to reconsider that vote at the council's last summer meeting July 28, but again they have different agendas. If either one votes for the chart, it will be approved. Democrats have a 3-2 majority on the five-member council.

The allocation chart is part of a two-tiered growth management system Howard County uses to limit congestion. This year's housing chart is used to tell developers how many housing permits they will be allowed in each of five county areas in 2008.

Once builders obtain an allocation, they also must pass a school crowding test, which is controlled by a different chart that predicts school enrollments.

Merdon wants to amend the housing chart to eliminate the transfer of 100 allocations from the western county to be used for more moderate-income housing in the eastern county. The transfer is calculated to slow growth in the west, where the county has fallen behind in purchasing farmland for agricultural preservation, while boosting construction of homes for middle-income families in the east, where public water and sewerage is available.

"As a concept, do I oppose slowing development in the west? No. The allocation chart is one tool. I want to examine the entire toolbox," Merdon said. "I do support the addition of affordable housing when it's done in a comprehensive manner."

He has argued that it is better to wait for a more comprehensive plan from the county executive this fall that will address moderate-income housing and limiting growth in the western county.

Delaying the allocation shift from the west could help Merdon politically because some rural Republicans oppose more growth restrictions as an infringement on landowners' rights to sell their increasingly valuable property. Western county Republican Councilman Charles C. Feaga also voted against the chart for that reason, he said. Merdon is campaigning to become Howard County executive next year.

Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel Savage Democrat, and Ulman said they want to change the timing of the allocation transfers in the charts so the removal of units from the west exactly matches their arrival in the east.

"This, in my opinion, is cleaner. It's probably what should have been done to begin with," Guzzone said. He said Merdon's amendments baffle him.

"I don't understand the logic of not slowing down the western part. It just doesn't make sense to me," Guzzone said. Ulman agreed, saying, "I'm in favor of slowing down the rate of growth in the west."

Some form of the charts must be adopted annually to allow planning for future development and provide a stable, predictable legal landscape for business, schools, government and residents, officials said.

"It's all about predictability, not only for property owners or developers, but for residents and agencies like the school system," said Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director.

Developers also are pleased the charts are now likely to be approved before the council's annual August hiatus.

"Obviously, that's better than waiting until the fall. I think it's the right thing to do," said James R. Schulte, president of Security Development, one of the county's most active developers.

At the July 5 meeting, the council also rejected a school enrollment chart by a 4-1 margin. Merdon voted for that chart, though county law requires that both be adopted together. The schools chart predicts which county schools will be over 115 percent of capacity in three years, triggering a county law that delays development around schools at or beyond that threshold.

On July 5, an angry Ulman said he voted with Merdon the first time to make a point - that he feels Merdon opposes contentious legislation he knows the majority Democrats will approve just for political advantage. By voting with Merdon and killing the charts that developers, landowners, school officials, residents and parents depend on, Ulman said, he wanted to illustrate the consequences if Merdon got his way.

Merdon denied any political motives for his votes, accusing Ulman of casting his vote for partisan reasons.

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