Development key concern in county

Election year serves to heighten debate on growth

March 19, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

VIRTUALLY EVERY OTHER ISSUE — In Howard County, the big question never really changes: How much development is too much?

Virtually every other issue - from economic development and school crowding to transportation and affordable housing - is seemingly tied to the development question as the county continues to grow as part of the sprawling East Coast megalopolis.

This year's elections to choose a new county executive and County Council has only intensified the debate.

With home prices up 77 percent in four years and still rising, even middle-income families can't find a home they can afford, and yet, though traffic congestion is growing, not enough people take mass transit to support more transit links to either Baltimore or Washington.

At the same time, older residents are upset over what they see as a tide of new homes and businesses that are overwhelming the quiet, suburban existence they found in the 1960s and '70s. They don't want tightly packed urban-style mixed-use developments like Emerson and Maple Lawn in the southern county, or Turf Valley in western Ellicott City.

A citizen-driven petition drive put a comprehensive rezoning bill on the November ballot - fueled by a perception that the county's roads and classrooms are too crowded, and that new homes are rising on nearly every vacant lot.

Despite those complaints, the county is planning the redevelopment of central Columbia that could add several thousand new homes to the town, while rezoning along the U.S. 1 and U.S. 40 corridors could produce more major changes.

Howard officials are also starting to plan for the arrival of thousands of new defense-related jobs in the nearby Fort Meade area of Anne Arundel County, but they see problems, too.

"Without transit, business will go elsewhere," County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican running for county executive, told a lunchtime gathering of social service providers in Oakland Mills recently.

"We're for the most part left out of the Baltimore [transit] system and the Washington [transit] system. We're not connected," said Councilman Ken Ulman, a Democrat also seeking the executive's job. Ulman advocated leaving space for a future transit station in the 30-year central Columbia plan. Talk of extending Washington's Metro line to Laurel could eventually also lead to a Columbia connection, he hinted.

More housing density could also enable more affordable housing, officials say.

"The only way you're going to build the kind of houses we're talking about is to make it affordable. And the only way you're going to make it affordable, given the price of land, is to create higher density," County Executive James N. Robey told a seminar of people concerned with the county's economy Feb. 16, according to a report in The Sun.

But the same growth that might attract mass transit or provide affordable housing for working families could also further clog local highways and cause more frequent school redistricting and portable classrooms.

Those fighting expansion plans at Turf Valley point to the lack of funding to expand Interstate 70 nearby, as daily rush-hour backups become common on the highway carrying commuters from Frederick and Carroll counties.

Ulman has advocated more state and regional financial support for transportation.

Still, some residents and political candidates rail against what they see as an ever more crowded county. Democrat Harry Dunbar is basing his campaign for county executive on what he calls out-of-control growth.

But county planners contend that figures show home development has been ramped down significantly and is well under control.

An annual county planning report shows an average of 1,685 dwellings were issued occupancy permits in each of the last five years, about half the pre-1990 peak of more than 3,000 a year. Last year, 1,650 homes got occupancy permits, including 484 for senior adults. County officials note seniors send no children to county schools, limiting costs.

Fewer schools are crowded by county standards, and construction of about 1,500 homes is being delayed by the county's 14-year-old Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. The law, tightened in 2000, delays developments around elementary and middle schools that are more than 115 percent over capacity. Despite criticism, county Planning Director Marsha S. McLaughlin said the law has worked to slow growth until the county could build more classrooms.

At a County Council meeting Feb. 13, McLaughlin told members, including Ulman and Merdon, "We think development is actually pretty well phased. It is a challenge to convey that to citizens."

Clustering new homes in the rural west may not be popular with residents, but an annual report on the public facilities law's results shows that it has preserved as open space 72 percent of the 10,390 acres subdivided since the law took effect in 1992.

Still, Merdon said, "what I hear from citizens is that they're spending too much time in traffic and their kids are in portable classrooms or being redistricted." He believes the county should build schools faster.

Ulman said the report indicates that the county has "made large strides" in controlling growth, though he recognizes "people feel frustrated."

Courtney Watson, a school board member and former APFO committee member who is running for County Council, said people frustrated with growth are responding to the cumulative effects of development over time, not just to what's happening now or in the last few years.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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