Council approves sprinkler measure

New detached houses must have them starting in 2011

March 07, 2010|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

Sprinklers will be required inside all new detached homes in Howard County on which building permits are applied for after Jan. 1, 2011, following a unanimous vote Monday night by the County Council.

"I think it's a great day for the citizens of Howard County and a great day for first responders," said Fire Chief William Goddard.

Firefighters had lobbied in favor of changing the county's building code to require sprinklers in detached homes to reduce injuries, deaths and property losses.

Howard County has required sprinklers in new townhouses since 1992.

The bill's approval had been expected, though builders had opposed mandatory sprinklers, contending that homebuyers should have a choice and that some might rather spend the money on accessories such as granite counter tops.

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

"It's past time to do this," said Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a Savage-North Laurel Democrat.

The council also unanimously approved a bill that would enable the county government to negotiate an agreement with a developer that could be used to bind together the strands of a complex proposal to build 325 homes on a portion of historic Doughoregan Manor, while preserving most of the land on the Ellicott City estate.

Permitted under state law and used in several counties, they are called developers rights and responsibilities agreements. They represent a way to guarantee a developer's promises in writing, county officials said.

There is also a link between the Doughoregan proposal and the sprinkler legislation. Requiring sprinklers in all new homes would likely erase any need for emergency access to the Doughoregan homes from Burnside Drive, a dead-end street at the estate's eastern property line.

Nearby residents are determined to keep Burnside Drive closed. Entry to the development area of Doughoregan would come from Frederick Road instead.

The County Council is scheduled to vote April 5 on another bill that would allow public water and sewer lines in the northeastern corner of Doughoregan, a nearly 300-year-old estate still owned by descendants of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The council heard a presentation about the Carroll family's development plan Monday night, and a public hearing March 15 will allow the public to speak.

A group of residents who live west of Centennial Lane oppose the project, fearing more traffic on Frederick Road and odors from a proposed facility to treat wastewater for nitrogen removal before it leaves the area in sewer pipes.

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

The alternative, county planning director Marsha McLaughlin told council members, would involve spreading nearly 400 new homes across the National Historic Landmark property using individual wells and septic systems. That could destroy the ambience of the site, she said.

McLaughlin said that since zoning regulations would require that half the development land be open space, only 110 acres would contain homes and 781 acres would be left permanently open.

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

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

Though the Carroll family is famously private and does not allow public access to their home, McLaughlin said she has been allowed to visit.

"You have a very unique sense of being isolated," she said, to the point that a visitor can imagine being there in an earlier century. If the new homes are built as planned, they won't be visible from the historic core of the property, she said.

The Carroll's goal is to raise millions of dollars for restoration and maintenance of their 18th-century mansion and about 30 other buildings, while preserving the bulk of the estate for future generations of the family.

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

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

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

If the Carroll plan is approved, McLaughlin said, the permanently preserved land would block further western movement of the utility boundary in the area, though council members wondered if it wouldn't set a precedent for movement in others.

"Couldn't that same argument be made all around the county?" asked Fulton 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.

Landowners near Route 216 might be happy to offer to preserve some land in exchange for access to water and sewer, Fox said.

But McLaughlin said that was unlikely, since Doughoregan is unique.

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

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