In-fill issues put on display

Complexity, intensity of development in established areas emerge at 2 meetings

April 01, 2007|BY A SUN REPORTER

A collision of vastly divergent interests appears inevitable as the county struggles with the knotty question of development in established neighborhoods.

Officials have known for some time that the issue was lurking, but it is becoming increasingly volatile, largely because of development projects that ignited opposition, the intense opposition to last year's "Comp Lite" rezoning process, which galvanized many people, as well as other pressures over which the county has little, if any, control.

The intensity and complexity of the issue were on display twice last week. First, at the inaugural meeting Tuesday of a citizens committee formed by the county to help guide it through the minefields, and then before the Planning Board on Thursday night.

The board, acting with two members short, embraced legislation to prohibit some projects, even while the 27-member citizens panel, appointed by the Department of Planning and Zoning, embarks on the comprehensive review of in-fill development.

The legislation, as proposed by County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, prohibited two-family dwellings only in areas zoned R-12, many of which are in Elkridge, which Watson represents. The board, at the department's urging, also extended that ban to properties zoned residential-environmental district.

The decision, passed on a 2-1 vote, was applauded as protecting the rights of homeowners and condemned as an act of betrayal of the county's pledge to low- and middle-income families to assist them in obtaining affordable housing.

Robert M. Buchmeier of the Inner Faith Coalition on Affordable Housing said the shortage of a full spectrum of housing has reached "crisis" proportions and urged the board to resist pressure to act on the "imagined misuse of zoning laws" by developers.

"This is not about affordable housing," said Diane Butler of the St. Johns Lane Community Association. "It's about density. ... A master or general plan is only as good as its enforcement."

In its simplest form, the dispute over in-fill development involves residents, who wish to preserve the character of their neighborhoods, and builders, who seek to construct as many units as possible on a parcel.

But the issue is made far more complex by the convergence of numerous pressures, and even county policies, that makes satisfying all parties difficult.

Those include the:

Importance of sustained growth to the county's economic health, as well as the need to provide housing to accommodate expected job expansion.

Declining availability of land for development, which, officials have said, means that much of residential construction will have to be small projects in established neighborhoods.

Escalation of land prices, which has changed the economics of home building drastically, often forcing developers to build units beginning in the high six figures, or multiple units to drive costs down.

Opposition to increased density, or the number of units per acre. That resistance is not limited to residents of mature neighborhoods. The county has been pressured to artificially restrict density even where the county's general plan, or blueprint for growth, calls for an infusion of housing, such as in the planned communities of Maple Lawn, Maryland in Fulton and Turf Valley in Ellicott City. Density has also become one of the central points of dispute in the proposal to develop downtown Columbia into an urban center.

Common demand that new structures be compatible with the homes in established neighborhoods. That is often difficult because what the typical buyer of a new home today is looking for is vastly different from what it was 25 or 40 years ago.

Need for affordable housing. A county-appointed task force reported late last year that there is "an indisputable gap" between the need for and the availability of affordable housing, and warned that the problem will only deteriorate without aggressive policies by the county. Among its recommendations were higher densities and a relaxation of construction restrictions.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of planning and zoning, acknowledged the tug of war between disparate interests. "Everyone is coming from different perspectives," she told the citizens committee. " ... It's sort of a struggle."

But there is an irrefutable fact driving the issue: "We are running out of land," she said.

That is the result of most of the development occurring in Howard's eastern section, which accounts for 40 percent of the county's land, while development in the west is prohibited or restricted because of efforts to preserve agricultural land and not to extend public water and sewer.

McLaughlin told the panel that the broad question is, "How do we both protect the resources we have in the east and still accommodate some growth?"

It is unknown when the committee will conclude its work and what changes, if any, it will recommend limiting the adverse affects of in-fill development.

But no one questions the difficulty of reaching accord on substantive changes.

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