Howard embarks on a new era

Growth, elections spur significant changes in county

March 18, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

With the election of 32-year-old Columbia native Ken Ulman as Howard County executive, and five virtually untried County Council members, Maryland's second-smallest, but most centrally located jurisdiction embarked on a new phase of its history.

A sparsely populated rural farm county just a half-century ago, Howard is poised now to join what used to be called the East Coast Megalopolis.

With thousands of federal defense jobs headed to nearby Fort Meade and the National Security Agency, and talk of extending the Washington Metro's Green line north at least to Laurel, Howard's time as a quiet stretch of open land is over.

Already flush with thousands of new well-paying jobs attracted to places like the Gateway Office Park in east Columbia, the coming influx of federal jobs will only boost the county's image as a progressive, ethnically diverse place close to major highways and BWI Marshall Airport, and equipped with good schools and high-end amenities.

Urban-style mixed-use projects are starting to rise along the U.S. 1 corridor in the eastern county, while refugees from Washington's even higher-priced real estate are buying big new homes in Maple Lawn, Maryland and Emerson along Howard's southern boundary.

A major redevelopment of central Columbia is expected to add thousands of new residents and office workers in the town that James W. Rouse built, and the fourth big-box shopping center is rising along Route 175 near Interstate 95.

The county has tried to keep pace with a burst of school construction that nearly eliminated a chronic crowding problem, and large new county parks either open or planned in western Glenwood, Ellicott City and North Laurel are greatly expanding the county's recreation facilities.

Rezoning along the U.S. 40 corridor is still working its way through the court system, but the aging suburbanites of the 1950s and 1960s who are fighting development appear to be losing their battle.

Their candidate for county executive, Republican Christopher J. Merdon, lost decisively to Ulman in November's election. Democrats won four of the five County Council seats, and outgoing Executive James N. Robey, who was criticized for raising local income taxes and banning smoking in bars and restaurants, beat Republican incumbent Sandra B. Schrader to win a state Senate seat.

Managing all that impending change while maintaining Howard's reputation for excellent schools, low crime and great parks and libraries is going to be a challenge.

Housing for middle-class wage-earners such as teachers, firefighters and police has become a problem.

A sharp price escalation since 2000 has the average price of a home in Howard up to $451,000, despite a recent slump in demand, and the county has struggled to find ways to provide homes and apartments affordable for lower-paid workers whom expanding businesses require.

The change in federal accounting standards for governments that is forcing every state and local government in the nation to put aside cash to pay for future retiree health benefits will create a huge dilemma, especially for Democrats like Ulman.

If he starts vigorously putting aside the estimated $477 million required, he might not have enough revenue to expand public transportation, give county workers a pay raise and expand the county police force -- all things he's made priorities.

But if he moves to limit retiree benefits, he could face strong opposition from those workers, who make up a solid part of his political support base.

"The bottom line is we have a county that is in the middle of everything, literally and figuratively, yet we are not connected into the two major cities' transportation systems," Ulman told a group of transportation advocates recently. "Except for the MARC commuter trains, we're left out of the Baltimore system and the Washington system."

His fear, as federal defense jobs begin migrating to the area under the federal Base Realignment and Closing (BRAC) plan, he said, "is that infrastructure dollars will not come," meaning more traffic congestion.

With rising federal deficits resulting from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress is likely to restrict new domestic spending, and Maryland is facing a coming structural deficit despite a good economy.

"Money will not be falling from the sky," he told the group.

Still, Ulman said he's committed to make sure that more new buildings and vehicles are bought with the environment in mind.

And planning for new homes and apartments for the growing senior population must take their transportation and security in mind.

"Think ahead, in any new development," he said.

Both Ulman and the County Council are gingerly moving forward, choosing key staff members while considering what changes to make.

Giving the public more information and making government more transparent to the public is a goal, government leaders say, while all pledge to keep growth in balance with the county's ability to build, schools, roads and other facilities.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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