Citizens panel urges `density bank'

Proposal's aim is to protect farmland and property values in west

September 21, 2005|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

Hoping to break a stalemate over proposals to further restrict development in western Howard County, a citizens committee has asked the county to consider overhauling its land preservation program by creating a "density bank" that would protect farmland and property values of large landowners.

The suggestion was not a formal recommendation, but the committee is looking for alternatives to the county's proposed zoning changes, and it wants to determine whether the concept should be pursued.

It is unclear whether the county would be willing to adopt such a program, but Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of planning and zoning, said her department will examine the proposal.

The concept was considered and rejected a few years ago by the county, but a number of factors now might gain the plan greater support.

First, the county's suggested changes have not won the backing of the committee, and they seem unlikely to. One committee member said this week that if a vote were taken today, the panel probably would vote to leave zoning for the western region unchanged. Second, having appointed the 19-member panel to form a compromise, the county is reluctant to go it alone. Also, the density-bank proposal is regarded by some, especially developers, as a positive, rather than punitive, approach. And it avoids the politically sensitive issue of advocating making places like Columbia pay to acquire density.

The essence of the plan is for the county to spend millions of dollars to acquire building rights, or density, from property owners in the west and then to "bank" them until they are sold to developers over a number of years. Proponents of the idea said that as property values increase the county might make a profit on its investment, although that is neither guaranteed nor the motivation.

There could be multiple benefits, proponents said, some of which transcend the immediate conflict:

Land in the west, much of it agricultural, would be preserved and permanently safeguarded from development, which is the county's principle objective.

Property values in that region would be protected because the county would pay more per acre -- perhaps as much as market value -- which would provide landowners with an economic incentive not to develop.

Developers would not face losing over several years the ability to build hundreds of housing units.

The county's revitalization efforts elsewhere, particularly along U.S. 1 and the U.S. 40 corridor, would get a boost.

Affordable housing would be provided by creating "hamlets," or mixed-use villages, in some locations, including in the west, such as Lisbon, by transferring the density to those sites.

"It's a pretty simple idea," committee member Theodore Mariani, vice president of the architecture firm CSD Mariani, said after Monday's meeting. "It's just going to require a little finesse. The county would be able to, in a sense, barter the density and put it where it wants the density. And it gets the money back out of the development process to pay itself back for having made the investment."

While McLaughlin said there are serious political, legal and financial issues to explore, she said, "buying and banking might be a more doable option" than some of the other ideas that have been suggested.

The committee, appointed by McLaughlin, has taken no formal position on any specific proposal, including a density bank. But the group seems adamant that in preserving land, the county must also protect the land values of property owners.

The county's proposals, Mariani said, would eliminate about 800 housing units over several years, cost property owners $100 million and the building industry $500 million.

"All their plans eventually were knocking out 800 units of housing," Mariani said. "...Why not restructure your plan so you don't have to give away $100 million [and] maximize the potential we have?"

The county is being pressured by the state to restrict growth in the west so more land can be preserved.

The state has threatened to not recertify the county as part of the Maryland agriculture preservation program if sufficient limits are not imposed.

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