Howard development appears stable, pace still slow

15-month report shows little change

May 12, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

The pace of home building in Howard County remained nearly unchanged from late 2009 through last year, while commercial construction declined slightly, according to a new county government development report.

There were 1,427 residential units built in the 15 months that ended Dec. 31, the report said. A 12-month average based on that figure is 1,141 units, a few less than in the previous year and less than the 1,379 annual average for the previous five years. Those numbers are far below the peak of more than 3,000 units a year built before the county adopted growth controls in 1992.

With commercial construction also down and more jobs lost than gained last year, Howard still appears to be mired in a development downturn despite recent optimism.

"In spite of what people say, we're still in the Great Recession," said economist Daraius Irani, a Howard resident and director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute, based at Towson University.

Prospects for this year are brighter, with the number of building permits issued for homes up 20 percent over 2009. Most are for large projects being built in phases over several decades, such as Maple Lawn in Fulton, Shipley's Grant in Ellicott City and Howard Square on U.S. 1 in Elkridge. And big national builders are seeking land for future projects, according to a leading local builder.

"I think people are feeling better," said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, adding that business people he talks to report empty spaces being leased and new projects being prepared. At the same time, "we want it to be slow and steady," he said of the pace of development.

The pace of building remained the same as the previous year at 95 units a month, and home sale prices also remained flat. Ninety-two percent of the new homes were built in the county's already developed eastern sections, such as Guilford Gardens in Columbia, where the county housing commission is demolishing the 1980s-vintage public housing and replacing it with Monarch Mills, an amenity-filled, mixed-income community. Other large developments are in the U.S. 1 corridor from Elkridge to North Laurel, and one-third of the new units are in Ellicott City.

Commercial construction totaled 1.1 million square feet, down from a five-year annual average of 1.7 million square feet. An added 1.1 million square feet — almost all in office buildings in the southeastern part of the county — was in the development pipeline by the end of last year, a decline of one-third from 2009. At the peak of development in 2005-2006 more than 3 million square feet of commercial construction was approved.

Howard County lost 1,100 jobs in 2010, according to state figures, down from the 5,300 jobs lost in 2009. It is the only two-year period of job loss since counting began in 1969, the report said. Only in 1991, during another recession, did the county lose jobs during that period, according to the report, though they numbered just 373.

Robert Goodier, a builder who has worked in Howard for years and is president-elect of the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, said small- and medium-size builders are struggling in the county, partly because of continuing problems with bank loans and low appraisals. But big national builders are "starting to contract for land in Howard and surrounding counties. That would make building lots available to them in the next several years," he said.

"There's no surprises," said Jeff Bronow, the county's research chief who compiled much of the information in the report. "The good news is that the county continues to have an active development community," he said, and things seem to have stabilized after hitting bottom in 2008-2009.

Though county officials crave economic growth and the revenue that comes with it, community groups see the slowdown as a pause that may help infrastructure catch up.

"I like the revenue part, but we have school overcrowding and they're adding students every day," said Cathy Hudson of Elkridge, president of the Howard County Citizens Association.

According to the report, 440 new residences are being delayed under Howard's growth-control laws, many in Elkridge, which has the most crowded schools in the county. Five elementary school districts and two middle school areas are closed to development because of crowded classrooms.

This year, the county shifted the time period covered by the annual Development Monitoring Report because of changes in state law. Instead of covering the 12 months from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, the county shifted to a calendar year.

This first report includes the last three months of 2009 and all of 2010. The report has been issued annually since 1992 to keep track of growth after passage that year of the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which established a maximum number of building permits allowed each year and delays projects up to four years if roads or schools are too crowded.

One of the new items required under state law is a gauge of residential density. In Howard's five planning areas, Elkridge is the densest by far, with 20.44 units per acre. The southeastern part of the county has 11.65 units per acre, Ellicott City 8.2 units per acre and Columbia 6.7. The rural west had the least density with 0.83 units per acre.

However, the numbers can be somewhat misleading. Ellicott City led the county with 520 new units, Elkridge was second with 432, with 280 in the southeastern part, 137 in the west and 103 in Columbia. But Elkridge's new condos and townhouses were built on fewer acres.

The median price for apartment condominiums was $217,000, $305,000 for townhouses and $470,000 for single-family detached homes, the study found.

The recession has also altered the types of homes being built. Instead of the large "McMansions" of the housing boom years, Bronow said townhouses and apartments now make up two-thirds of new homes.

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