Howard County to require sprinklers in new detached homes

Council passes safety requirement by unanimous vote

March 02, 2010|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

Sprinklers will be required inside all new detached homes in Howard County that builders apply for permits for starting Jan. 1, according to a unanimous vote Monday night by the County Council. Howard has required sprinklers in new townhouses since 1992.

"I think it's a great day for the citizens of Howard County and a great day for first responders," said county fire Chief William Goddard after the meeting. Firefighters had lobbied strongly for sprinklers for detached homes to be included in the county's building code; they say sprinklers will reduce injury and death from fires and cut property losses.

The bill's approval was expected though home builders had opposed it, arguing that buyers should have a choice on whether to install sprinklers and that some might rather spend the money on accessories like granite kitchen counter tops.

"The granite counter top lobby will be disappointed," Michael L. Harrison, spokesman for the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, said jokingly.

"It's past time to do this," said Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a Democrat who represents the southeastern part of the county.

At the meeting, the council also unanimously approved a bill that would enable the county to negotiate an agreement with a developer to bind the various strands of a complex proposal to develop 325 homes on historic Doughoregan Manor while preserving most of the nearly 300-year-old estate's remaining land. Developers Rights and Responsibilities Agreements are permitted under state law and used in several other counties, and they represent a way to guarantee a developer's promises in writing, county officials said.

There is a link between the Doughoregan proposal and the sprinkler legislation.

Requiring sprinklers in new homes would likely erase need for emergency access to the Doughoregan homes from Burnside Drive, a dead-end street at the estate's eastern property line. Nearby residents want to keep Burnside closed. Entry to the Doughoregan homes would come from Frederick Road instead.

The County Council is scheduled to vote April 5 on another bill that would allow water and sewer lines into the northeastern corner of Doughoregan, which is owned by descendants of Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The council heard a presentation of the Carroll family's development plan Monday night, and a public hearing is slated for March 15. Some residents who live west of Centennial Lane oppose the project, fearing more traffic congestion on Frederick Road and potential bad odors from a plan to remove nitrogen from wastewater before it leaves the area in sewer pipes.

The decision on utilities is the key to the family's development plan, which seeks to cluster the homes on 187 acres in the estate's northeast corner. The Carolls plan to donate 34 acres to Howard County to expand Kiwanis-Wallas Park. The rest of the 892-acre estate would be preserved.

The alternative, county planning director Marsha McLaughlin said, would involve spreading nearly 400 homes across the National Historic Landmark property using individual wells and septic systems. That could destroy the ambiance of the site, she said. McLaughlin said that because zoning would require that half the development land be open space, only 110 acres would contain homes, while 781 acres would be left open.

McLaughlin said septic systems would work only on the estate's highest portions, which are also best for farming.

"We will be using up prime farming land to build houses on," said Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat.

If the homes are built, they won't be visible from the historic core of the property, McLaughlin said. The Carrolls' goal is to raise millions of dollars to restore and maintain their Colonial-era 18th-century mansion and about 30 other buildings, while preserving the bulk of the estate for future generations. Although the family is private and won't allow public access to its home, McLaughlin said the Carrolls have allowed her to visit. "You have a very unique sense of being isolated," she said, adding that a visitor can imagine being there in an earlier century.

Doughoregan is the only home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence still in family hands.

If council members vote to allow the utilities, a later zoning board deliberation on whether to change zoning on the land could be almost automatic.

"Clearly changing the [utility] boundary and leaving [the zoning] rural doesn't make any sense," McLaughlin said. The county Planning Board last month recommended approval for the utilities and the zoning change.

By approving the Carrolls' plan, McLaughlin said, the permanently preserved land would block any further western movement of the utility boundary, though council members wondered if it wouldn't set a precedent for movement in other areas.

"Couldn't that same argument be made all around the county?" asked western county Republican Greg Fox.

"Why would we consider this and not down on Route 216?" asked council chairwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat whose district includes Doughoregan.

Fox said landowners farther south around Route 216 might be happy to offer to preserve some land in exchange for access to water and sewer. McLaughlin said that was unlikely because Doughoregan is unique.

"A National Historic Landmark makes this different," the planning director said.

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