The fate of a bill intended to be an occasional tool to help expand housing for limited-income people appears unclear after a long, contentious Howard County council work session.
The measure is a remnant of housing policies pursued by the last administration under Leonard S. Vaughan, the former housing director, and it drew the ire of Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson and western county Republican Greg Fox.
But Stacy L. Spann, Howard's current housing director, and his deputy, Thomas Carbo, said the bill is needed to move forward with what Carbo said is a "good project in a good location" - the 106-unit Ellicott Gardens apartment house for limited-income renters - mostly single people and couples - planned for a site at Falls Run Road and Route 108, just south of Route 100.
The bill, one of eight housing measures reviewed by the council before a scheduled Nov. 5 vote, would allow the county Housing Commission to partner with a private investor to qualify for state-administered low-income tax credits to help build limited-income housing on land in some commercial zones. The new law also creates height and set-back standards for such buildings, and sets a 3-acre minimum lot size. The Housing Commission also recently approved a maximum limit of 10 acres of commercial land per year for any housing project, but that limit is not in the bill.
The Housing Commission has had the power to build commission-owned projects on commercial land since 1990, when it was created to allow the county to take ownership of a foreclosed apartment project along U.S. 40 in western Ellicott City. Since then, the commission has never used the power to build on commercial land, though Vaughan made an attempt last year on Frederick Road, where a proposed four-story apartment building for moderate-income renters caused a community furor. The project collapsed, and Vaughan was later fired by new County Executive Ken Ulman.
"Why didn't we use it?" Watson asked Spann about the power to build on commercial land at one point during the three-hour meeting late Monday.
"You'll have to ask the previous director," Spann replied.
"It's your goal to get commercial land," Fox said.
"It's not our goal," Spann said.
Marsha McLaughlin, the county planning director, said the County Council has the power to deny any Housing Commission partnership project on commercial land because each specific proposal must be approved by a council resolution under state law. Resolutions asking approval of Ellicott Gardens are part of the housing package the council is considering. But Watson said that resolution comes at the end of the process, when it might be difficult to deny. Spann has also promised to hold a community information meeting to tell residents about any new project.
Spann and Carbo repeatedly explained that the bill is intended for use in an unforeseen, unusual opportunity, but Watson and Fox said they fear the change could threaten the county's remaining supply of commercially zoned land. They also criticized Ellicott Gardens because the project allowed Stuart Greenebaum, developer of Maple Lawn, Maryland, to satisfy his moderate-income housing obligation by buying and donating the land for Ellicott Gardens rather than by building the units amid his expensive new homes.
"The concern is how much land is at risk?" Watson asked.
"How often do you see this coming up?" asked council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, whose district includes the site for Ellicott Gardens.
"Very rarely. Land is too expensive," Spann said. "We're not actively seeking commercial property for that purpose." He said commercially zoned land in Howard County sells for up to $1 million an acre, which makes it unlikely that the Housing Commission could afford to buy any or that any would be donated.
In addition, Spann said the Ulman administration is committed to reversing Vaughan's policy that the previous County Council put into law - allowing developers required to build moderate-income housing to move the units to another site from their primary project.
None of that satisfied Watson and Fox, however.
"What I'm really wrestling with here," Watson said, "is how much [commercial land] do we need to protect the future of Howard County's economy for the tax base? How much will that [housing] chip away at the future economic health?" She also noted that Spann's assurances don't bind future administrations.
But Councilwoman Jen Terrassa, a southeastern county Democrat, said the housing bills can help solve a pressing problem.
"We've all been addressing the affordable-housing crisis. We're trying to increase that [supply]," she said.
"Let's do it on residential land. Let's not use commercial land for residential purposes," Watson replied.