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The first of several houses is under construction in Colvard Choice off Chestnut Hill Road in Forest Hill. Overall, home building activity in Harford County fell in 2014 compared to the two previous years.
The first of several houses is under construction in Colvard Choice off Chestnut Hill Road in Forest Hill. Overall, home building activity in Harford County fell in 2014 compared to the two previous years. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Despite a few bright spots, Harford County's home building industry endured another lackluster year in 2014, county officials and builders say.

From Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, the county's permits office issued 346 permits to build new single family homes, townhouses or apartments. Of that total, 155 were for single family or modular units and 191 were for townhouses. No multi-family units received permits, but permits were issued during the year for six shell buildings to house condos, according to permits office's final monthly report for the year.

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The 2014 total is 226 fewer new housing units than were permitted by the county during 2013 and 107 fewer than in 2012.

In relation to the previous decade, 2013 turned out to be an improved year for home building, former county planning chief Pete Gutwald said last month, shortly before he left his post in the changeover of administrations. Unfortunately, he added, the trend hasn't continued into this year.

For the full year in 2013, permits were issued by the county for 572 new units, which included 226 single family homes, 158 townhouses and 188 apartment units. In 2012, 453 permits were issued, including 242 single family homes, 183 townhouses and 25 multi-family units.

The figures for the county do not include the municipalities of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace.

Bel Air, which has been under a building moratorium because of water issues that was just lifted last month, has seen slack activity the past year, as has Aberdeen. Havre de Grace has been a little better and has the most active developments of the three.

As of July 1, Havre de Grace had issued 17 single-family permits this year, 15 in Bulle Rock and in the downtown area, city Planning Director Neal Mills said. Figures were not available from the City of Aberdeen.

In an effort to spur building in two other developments, Scenic Manor and Greenway Farm, city officials are planning to cut water and sewer hookup fees in both, a move that isn't popular with the developer of Bulle Rock or the people living in that community.

"The past eight years have been the worst I've ever seen," William H. Cox, a Bel Air-based Realtor and developer with more than 45 years in the industry, said.

Much of the building activity outside the municipalities has centered on the Trails at Beech Creek, a mix of 760 single family homes, townhouses and villas on the site of the former Beechtree Golf Course, just east of Aberdeen, according to Gutwald, who said the proximity to Aberdeen Proving Ground appeared to be a major draw for buyers in that community.

Otherwise, he said, most of the other housing construction this year has been scattered around the Bel Air area, as well as in areas in the northern half of the county not served by public water and sewer. Nothing has been built in great volume in those areas, he added.

There are, however, a number of housing developments in progress in the county's designated growth area, or development envelope, and those developments encompass almost 10,000 units, almost 7,100 of which haven't been issued, according to a Harford County Department of Planning and Zoning report compiled in November.

The group included Beech Creek with 570 units remaining (299 single family, 271 townhouses), three active phases in Bulle Rock with almost 1,100 units (394 single family, 373 townhouse, 312 multifamily), 568 units at Greenway Farm (244 townhouse, 324 multifamily), 76 single family units at Blake's Legacy north of Bel Air, 288 apartment units on the Mt. Soma property west of Bel Air, 302 units at Magness Exemption southwest of Bel Air (127 single family, 175 townhouses), 198 apartment units on the Evergreen property in Bel Air South, 183 multifamily units at Box Hill South, 163 multifamily units at Riverwoods (Constant Friendship) in Abingdon and 197 townhouse units at Joppa Crossing.

County planners expected the Mt. Soma and Magness Exemption projects to begin getting building permits in either the last quarter of 2014 or first quarter of 2015, according to Gutwald. Although site work is being done on the Mt. Soma site, as of last week permits had not been requested by the developer and no final plat had been filed, county government spokesperson Cindy Mumby said.

Although he agrees with those who say high permit costs aren't helping the situation in Harford, Cox said government at all levels needs to do more to encourage home building.

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"It's so important to the economy for the jobs it creates and materials consumed," he said.

Harford isn't alone. The slackening in home building has been nationwide, despite low borrowing rates and continued improvements in other segments of the national economy. The Commerce Department reported last month that sales of new single family homes are running slightly behind 2013 over the first 10 months of this year.

The continued slowdown in the building economy has been blamed on holding down the growth of Harford County government's property tax revenue, which is used to fund about half of the county's operating budget.

Single family housing construction has historically been the engine that drove growth in property tax revenue higher, which explains why county budget planners have had to view budgets with lowered expectations from the 2008-09 recession onward. As housing construction has slumped, so has the growth in the assessed values of existing homes, further depressing property tax revenue growth, county finance officials have said the past few years.

One positive outcome of the new housing slump is the county does not face overcrowding at any of its public school buildings, a point which Gutwald and new Harford County Council President Richard Slutzky both noted during the semi-annual review by a county adequate public facilities advisory board in mid-November.

"The vast majority are not even threatening rated capacity," Slutzky said of schools and development in their service areas.

Slutzky, who chaired the advisory panel since its inception six years ago, said the impact of base realignment at Aberdeen Proving Ground did not attract as many people to move to Harford "as we thought."

Joseph Licata, chief of administration for Harford County Public Schools, said one trend school officials have noticed is that people are moving within the county, frequently younger couples buying a first home or moving into existing homes in more established communities, such as Bel Air, as older owners sell out to downsize or move to retirement places, often away from Harford.

"The trend is going to continue. We have watched for a rebound, for enrollment to bounce back, but we still haven't seen it," Licata said about the continuing decline in Harford County Public Schools enrollment.

Aegis staff member Bryna Zumer contributed to this story.

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