Limited growth called success

Report says county is sticking to policy set for restricting home construction

March 30, 2007|by a sun reporter

The county's efforts to sustain growth while simultaneously controlling it are succeeding, according to an analysis.

While the report also indicates some progress in combating the dearth of homes for moderate- and low-income earners, it also underscores the severity of escalating housing prices, which are increasingly denying many families the chance to live in the county.

The 54-page document, prepared by the Department of Planning and Zoning, identifies important shifts in trends as well, although officials believe some may be temporary.

The analysis has been required annually since the adoption in 1992 of the adequate public facilities ordinance, which restricts development in areas where schools and public roads would be adversely affected.

The report is useful, because it "shows us where we want to be and where we are," said Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning.

The findings show that "growth is reflecting what the policymakers have established for the county," said Jeffrey Bronow, chief of the research division, which conducted the study.

McLaughlin said that the report also demonstrates that the county "is clearly in position for continued robust nonresidential growth over the next several years."

The report covers Oct. 1, 2005, through Sept. 30, 2006.

It says that 1,877 homes were constructed during that time. That is above the county limit of 1,850, but such variances are not unusual because the completion of units sometimes slide into a different year. Over time, though, the average number of homes built does not exceed the cap, Bronow said.

The report underscores that point by noting that over the previous five years, the number of new housing units averaged 1,679.

Building permits were issued for 3.1 million square feet of nonresidential space - office, retail and distribution, a modest reduction from the 3.8 million square feet during 2005, the report says.

Elkridge and Columbia were the biggest beneficiaries of that growth, accounting for a combined 1.8 million square feet.

The analysis also notes that construction of more than 900 homes are being delayed - 588 of them because of the county's allocation system, which is designed to control growth, and 345 units because they would add to school overcrowding.

"Slowing and phasing growth has helped the county better manage and provide the timely construction of schools, roads and other public infrastructure," the report says.

Housing affordability is one of the most critical issues facing the county. A recent task force warned against exclusivity and said many people, including an inordinate percentage of county employees, are unable to live in Howard County.

"The moderate-income housing program is beginning to yield results," the report says, noting that 107 units in that category were recently approved "and another 898 [are] in the planning process."

When compared to the need, though, those numbers are "minuscule," McLaughlin said.

And the report acknowledges that "affordability is an increasing concern."

The report documents why the issue is so problematical: the average price of a home in the county jumped 13 percent in 2006 and has escalated 83 percent in the previous four years.

The mean price of all housing in the county has risen to $471,126 last year from $257,946 four years ago, the report says.

The escalation has been greater for single-family detached homes, jumping to about $612,000 from about $348,000.

Bronow said that while housing prices are a concern, the issue is not confined

"There are bigger factors at play," he said. "... It's not just Howard County, it's national."

The report also documents swings in trends in the year covered by the report:

In the previous five years, single-family detached homes have accounted for less than half of all units built, and in 2006 that figured dropped to 36 percent.

More than one-third of all homes constructed the previous year - 637 units - were age-restricted, meaning for people at least 55 years old. An additional 1,259 of those units are in the planning stages.

McLaughlin said the movement toward multiunit developments - primarily apartments, townhouses and condominiums - reflects in part the decline in land available for traditional subdivisions with single-family detached homes.

"It was clearly going to shift over time," she said. "It's a natural thing."

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