As Howard County ages, growth slows, changes

Planners consider revisions to countywide plan

May 31, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Howard County is growing up, and sometimes it hurts.

After years of sprouting like an adolescent, the prosperous, strategically located Central Maryland jurisdiction is looking toward a new decade marked by slower population increases and a sometimes painful conversion to a more urban and less suburban style of development.

County officials are preparing to begin a once-a-decade revision of the General Plan growth guide later this year, and their goal is to encourage increasingly sophisticated, detailed development techniques for a time they expect to produce major changes.

"We do think of the maturing of Howard County, the maturing of infrastructure," said county planning director Marsha McLaughlin. "Most [growth] will be [redevelopment] rather than new construction. This will be more nuanced."

Howard's population growth is slowing. From a 58 percent increase during the 1980s, the rate dropped to 32 percent in the 1990s and estimates pending new census figures are for a rate around half that over the past decade. In the last half-century, Howard has grown from 36,152 people in 1960 to an estimated 286,552 in January, transforming the county from a bucolic farm community to a bustling suburban hub between Baltimore and Washington.

Now, with thousands of federal jobs coming to the nearby Fort Meade and National Security Agency area, the push is to prepare for more sophisticated, densely packed, public transit-oriented, mixed-use projects to replace the first waves of suburban buildings — all while battling growing commuter traffic congestion.

Where will Howard be in 2020?

"I always looked to Montgomery County to see what might lie ahead," said state Del. Shane Pendergrass, who recalled her two terms, from 1986 to 1994, on the Howard County Council dealing with fights over new housing developments that popped up like spring dandelions. "They're 10 to 20 years ahead of Howard County."

That means more traffic congestion, she said, while the renovation of older town centers like Silver Spring and Rockville have created excitement that is drawing younger people.

The legal structure for much of the change contemplated in Howard is in place. The rezoning of central Columbia and the town's village centers to enable their redevelopment, as well as earlier changes along the U.S. 1 and U.S. 40 corridors, have spawned proposals for urban-style mixed-use projects.

At the same time, McLaughlin said, "redevelopment will be greening, with quality of design. It has to be done really, really well, with more detailed emphasis than before." That's why the county created a design review panel, and changed laws to require larger commercial buildings to meet higher environmental standards.

The transformation of Columbia's central core into a real downtown is expected to get under way, too, though some residents are still hoping to scale that back. Columbians unhappy about General Growth Properties' three-decade plan to build up to 5,500 new residences and about six million square feet of stores, offices, hotels and cultural and transportation amenities in Columbia's Town Center are rallying behind Alan Klein, a candidate for County Council against incumbent Mary Kay Sigaty, who helped push through the unanimously approved rezoning in February.

"We would certainly hope and expect that by 2020 a significant initial phase could be completed and stabilized," said Gregory F. Hamm, Columbia's general manager and General Growth Properties vice president. "I hope by 2020 we'd have examples of all the product types," he said.

In addition, mixed-use projects are proposed for the three MARC train stations along the Howard-Anne Arundel county line to serve the coming waves of federal defense workers. Older shopping centers on U.S. 40 from Normandy in the east to the Forest Diner and motel in the west are under consideration for redevelopments that mix residences with retail and office uses.

But as the county has worked to reduce school crowding and begun building up public amenities such as parks, community centers and libraries, traffic congestion is a constant burden and source of complaints.

"I think the area will start to look like northern Baltimore, like York Road at the Baltimore Beltway," said Marc Norman, a persistent critic who for six years has fought long-approved plans to transform the 809 lush green acres of the Turf Valley Hotel and Resort in western Ellicott City. He lives there, in one of fewer than 200 houses built on the property's edge, but plans call for it to be turned into a mixed-use community with more than 1,300 homes and apartments and a commercial center.

Norman wants to keep the open spaces he saw when he bought his house, which sits on a ridge above the resort's golf courses.

"Why not more corporate parks and campuses?" he asked, without the "massive developments of housing?"

It may sound nice, McLaughlin warned, but jobs without homes for those workers just means more commuter traffic and congestion, she said. Because of Howard's central location, high-paying professional jobs "tend to concentrate," McLaughlin said. But if housing doesn't keep up, prices in the county will rise and those workers jam highways as commuters.

"Where are those people going to live?" she said. "If they live in Pennsylvania, they make people in both Howard County and Maryland crabby [by commuting]. That's why I think it's important to continue sustainable development," she said, both from an environmental and congestion standpoint.

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