Builder's plan sprawls beyond good reason

September 05, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

HERE'S A suggestion for Michael Carnock, the developer in Columbia who wants to build 4,300 homes in Allegany County in the belief that people will be willing to drive incredible distances to work - 200 miles round trip to Washington, 180 miles round trip to Gaithersburg, 140 miles round trip to Frederick - and pay incredible amounts of money for gasoline so they can live there:

Come to Baltimore. Build houses here.

We have block after block just waiting for what you guys call "in-fill."

Instead of destroying open space in the mountains of Western Maryland, right near Green Ridge State Forest, come to Baltimore and develop homes here. We've got plenty of space, primed for redevelopment.

We have old rowhouses that need renovation and plenty of residents looking for construction jobs. We have access to the commuter rail and BWI, and a reputation as a relatively affordable place to live for people who work in Washington. And we have amenities, including the best medical care in the world for the aging baby boomers you say you see as your primary customers. We'll even get the governor and the mayor to throw some serious tax breaks your way - a Republican and a Democrat working together to save open space and to bring redevelopment where it's needed.

OK. End of pitch. I'm trying to be nice.

What I really wanted to say was this: Carnock's idea of building 4,300 homes in a rural county with no jobs to offer - essentially, a remote and isolated bedroom - comes at a time when private developers and government agencies should be working closely to rebuild old communities and develop smart new ones in and near urban centers. It comes as a new generation of Americans discovers the city life their parents spurned, and as the nation faces the reality of rising energy costs and personal and governmental debt that could forever change lifestyles in this country.

So all that makes Carnock's Terrapin Run one of the most asinine schemes to come down the pike in years.

I mean, this is thinking 50 years behind the American clock: Buy cheap land in a rural area, get the local officials, all desperate to show "growth" of any kind (even if it doesn't create enduring jobs) to approve your plan, and build houses in the middle of nowhere, where there's no infrastructure, and argue that there's a "market" you are serving.

You may not even have enough well water for all the homes you propose to build. No problem. You just buy more land so you can tap into another natural resource, a nearby creek, to serve your development.

Carnock, who acknowledges not having enough well water on the 1,000 acres he's acquired for the project, has applied to the state for a permit to draw water from nearby 15 Mile Creek. (Will there be any left for the trout?)

Here's hoping the state says no.

And here's hoping the governor of Maryland makes a deal with this guy: Take those 1,000 acres in Allegany and make them a gift to the state, for forest or parkland. In return, the state will swing you a nice tax deal on property acquisition in Baltimore or some older suburb. We'll even give you a list of areas begging for redevelopment. You have to commit to building homes with a wide range of styles and prices, so that the tax breaks support housing for a range of income levels. But you can live with that, can't you?

I understand why Allegany officials approved Carnock's plan for Terrapin Run last week. They're just trying to get something going in a county that tied itself to industry years ago - unlike adjoining Garrett County, which remained primarily agricultural - but can't seem to attract new industry.

And maybe it shouldn't. Maybe it was the scattered, smelly industry that kept Allegany from becoming a thriving resort area years ago. Maybe now Allegany is meant to have a smaller population that serves a tourist economy.

If conditions in the North Branch of the Potomac River continue to improve, the area between Westernport and Cumberland should become a fantastic destination, especially for those who like to fish and paddle and do that bed-and-breakfast thing. More hike-and-bike trails in the hickory-and-oak forests will attract Washingtonians and Baltimoreans, the kind who read Outside and Men's Health, for long weekends. Rocky Gap is there, and a Nicklaus-signature golf course. All of that is very appealing and deserving of the state's support.

What's not appealing and deserving of the state's support is Terrapin Run. It promises to be just another eyesore along a highway, a swath of suburbia plunked down in a rural place that should be left open and green. Vast tracts of houses and condos, congested roads and shopping centers - if people of Allegany County want that, I have a suggestion: Move here.

We've got plenty to go around.

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