Housing bill may face delay in the council

Some fear that more allocations for U.S. 1 would strain services

May 30, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Concerns over whether speeding up development would strain public services could delay a County Council vote on a bill to double the number of new homes allowed annually in the U.S. 1 corridor.

During a session this week, the council discussed tabling an Ulman administration bill for a month when it comes up for a vote at Monday night's council meeting.

The measure would make available up to 250 housing allocations per year from future years for projects along U.S. 1. The "borrowed" allocation would be added to the 250 a year that are available for projects in the area. The bill also would allow townhouse and apartment projects, in addition to mixed-use projects now allowed. Single projects would be limited to 125 new allocations in a given year.

Four amendments have been submitted. One, sponsored by two council members and the county executive, would require developers getting permission to speed up construction to pay cash or provide land in return, though no amount was suggested. Other proposals would exclude the area of Elkridge north of Route 100, and townhouse and apartment developments from eligibility.

The county has worked for the past decade to ease the way for projects aimed at transforming the U.S. 1 corridor from a semi-industrial area to a bustling residential/commercial sector. But Elkridge residents have complained that speeding construction of more homes would exacerbate school crowding in the next decade.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director, said the county did not expect so many projects to be proposed so quickly. The focus now is to keep momentum going by helping several projects that have been stymied by the county's complex growth controls, she said.

"I don't think anyone anticipated the level of response" to county zoning changes intended to promote revitalization, McLaughlin said.

At a council work session Tuesday, administration officials argued that the bill, intended primarily to help several large projects in Jessup and Savage, would not substantially hasten the need for more classrooms and other public facilities.

The school system planning manager, Joel Gallihue, said that he estimates the bill might accelerate crowding by one year, but he predicted that Elkridge would not need new schools until 2017.

"This legislation is not the major impact," Gallihue said, noting the general growth in the corridor, likely driven by more reasonable home prices.

McLaughlin pointed to two projects that county officials view as good for the area but that would be hamstrung under the current rules. One projects calls for building apartments and offices at the Savage MARC train station, where the developer would have to build parking garages before tearing up parking lots for the construction. But if the residential units are delayed by growth controls, the developer would not be able to generate enough income to pay the debt on the garages.

At the former Aladdin Mobile Home Park in Jessup, developers can build several hundred homes, but they would face years of delays waiting for allocations. That could threaten financing for the commercial portion of the project and leave the residents living in a construction zone for an extended time. McLaughlin said several small projects on Furnace Avenue in historic Elkridge also need help to "bring a little new life to old Elkridge."

Council Chairwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who represents Elkridge, noted, "There's a lot of resistance to both of those [Elkridge] projects."

Council member Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, wants to table the bill, suggesting that a provision of the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance could be used to help the redevelopment of Aladdin and the Savage MARC station without changing rules in the corridor.

Sigaty noted that the facilities law allows allocation amendments for economic development purposes. McLaughlin said that provision in the 1992 law has never been used. Sigaty then suggested tabling the bill for a month to allow more study.

East Columbia Democrat Calvin Ball said he is reluctant to approve the bill as is. Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, pointed out that at 250 units a year, the corridor could get 1,250 more homes than currently planned for in the next five years.

Watson argued that without some new source of funds, county government cannot afford to build needed public facilities or more new homes.

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