Growth pace in spotlight

Merdon urging higher impact fees, delay in planning for Columbia's redevelopment

October 04, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Planning for the redevelopment of Columbia's downtown should be halted for at least a year and developers hit with much higher impact fees, according to a five-point slow-growth plan for Howard County announced by Republican County executive candidate Christopher J. Merdon.

Merdon, chairman of the County Council, also has received the endorsement of Harry M. Dunbar, a self-described slow-growth Democrat who ran for county executive but lost the Sept. 12 Democratic primary with 22 percent of the vote. County Councilman Ken Ulman, who represents west Columbia, got 78 percent to win the party nomination.

Merdon's plan for slowing development, if he is elected next month, is the latest of several proposals announced in a series of campaign news conferences intended to boost his visibility in the hotly fought contest for the county's top job.

All the candidates agree that the pace of growth -- especially new homes built on leftover "infill" lots in older neighborhoods -- appears to be voters' top interest this year.

"I'm the only candidate who has published a plan," Merdon told a breakfast meeting of the Clarksville Rotary Club hosting a candidates forum yesterday in River Hill. "If I'm elected county executive, you know exactly what I'm going to do," he said.

Ulman and independent candidate C. Stephen Wallis derided Merdon's proposals as campaign promises designed to capitalize on public resentment over congestion.

"It's all noise -- idle rhetoric," Wallis said as he arrived for the forum.

Ulman said the proposals come "after eight years of failing to do anything about infill development that is overwhelming parts of his district."

The Dunbar endorsement was no surprise, Ulman said, because Dunbar supported Republicans in the 2002 state and county elections.

Merdon's plan

Included in Merdon's plan are proposals to:

Create a task force to review all development fees and increase them, including a $20,000-per-unit impact fee for any additional units allowed by a zoning change, excluding affordable housing. Merdon argued that school construction costs have tripled since 1998, but county fees that fund roads and schools have not kept pace. A $1 per square foot excise fee imposed on new homes two years ago to help finance school construction was merely a "Band-Aid," Merdon said, and should be increased.

Stop the charrette process for planning Columbia's future. Merdon said he wants county government to do new transportation, school capacity and public safety studies to first map out how much new development Town Center can absorb. If elected, Merdon plans to study the situation for at least a year, he said, before submitting any plan to the new County Council.

Create strict guidelines for any density increases allowing more units per acre.

Require government-contracted traffic studies for new projects instead of developers hiring their own experts.

Create a Compatibility Review Board that could veto plans for any "infill" development if it is not compatible with existing neighborhoods. The board would be composed of an architect, a landscape architect and a civil engineer.

The possibility of delaying planning for Columbia's downtown got a cool reception from Douglas M. Godine, senior vice president of General Growth Properties, the developer of Columbia. He said the planning process began a year ago and was approved by the current administration.

"I think the process should continue to happen," said Godine. He said he expects committees refining the plan to come up with a set of recommendations in the first half of next year.

Merdon acknowledged that his proposals, if adopted, would increase the price of new homes, but he said "existing residents should not have to bear the burden" of new development.

Entire burden

Developer John Liparini and builder Harry L. Lundy Jr. , a heavy Merdon contributor, said placing the entire burden for growth on new homes is not fair. They favor County Executive James N. Robey's 2003 proposal to raise real estate transfer taxes on all home sales instead. But Liparini said he can live with impact fees as long as builders have enough time to plan for them.

"As long as I can anticipate the costs in evaluating a project, that's something I have to accept as part of doing business," he said.

Both also agreed with the idea of delaying the Columbia planning process to better organize the effort, and Lundy said a board to make sure infill projects are compatible also is a good idea. Paying a $20,000-per-house fee for more density also is worth it, Lundy said, though Liparini questioned if the Zoning Board might approve more rezonings just to get the fees.

Merdon delivered his remarks at his campaign headquarters on U.S. 40 in western Ellicott City on Monday, surrounded by campaign signs bearing his name and a new, red and white "against Comp Lite" sign stripped across the bottom.

Merdon, who often says he cannot win a straight party-line vote in a county with 20,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, is hoping his lone vote against the Comp Lite bill and his concentration on the growth issue will attract enough Democrats and independents to carry him to victory on Election Day.

Democrat Angela Beltram, a former County Council member who led an unsuccessful effort to petition the omnibus zoning bill called Comp Lite to referendum, and Courtney Watson, a Democrat running for Merdon's council seat in District 1, both attended Merdon's news conference. Beltram said she probably would vote for

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