Howard County's planning and zoning director told a group of real estate developers that the county is trying to make their lives easier by revising regulations and streamlining the plan review process to cut builders' time and costs.
"We are open to continuing trying to improve regulations," Joseph W. Rutter told about 60 members of the Howard chapter of the Home Builders Association of Maryland at the Columbia Inn on Wednesday night. "It's not our intent to be as onerous as possible. But we don't want to mislead you that we're going away from regulation."
Mr. Rutter discussed several projects his department is undertaking, including updating the zoning plan for the eastern county, revising a road design manual and subdivision regulations, and creating a landscape design manual.
Several developers said they won't be able to gauge the effect of the many changes being considered.
"We are going through a whole bunch of changes, and we really haven't tested them," said Steven J. Shipp, vice president of the TSA Group Inc., an Ellicott City planning and design firm. "It seems like we need tests to see the impact on the cost of housing."
L. Earl Armiger, president of Orchard Development Corp. in Ellicott City, also advocated evaluating proposals "in real-life situations." He said Howard government actions in the late 1980s hurt the construction industry. A bill aimed at environmental conservation decreased the number of units developers could build on certain parcels, and a building moratorium adopted later "was a disaster" to the industry, he said.
One reason that former County Executive Elizabeth Bobo was not re-elected was because "government forgot to include the industry it was regulating," Mr. Armiger said.
The planning office "wants to send as a message that our intent is not to jam anything through," Mr. Rutter said.
Howard HBAM chapter president Joe Firetti cautioned that every change in regulations and zoning affects home prices. He said he appreciated the "very thin line" the planning and zoning office walks in trying satisfy developers and residents opposed to growth.
"We represent a third group -- the silent folks who are going to buy in this county," he said. "The firemen, our kids, lower-level workers."
HBAM government affairs representative Joseph M. Perry recommended that the county "develop a mind set to help reduce the cost of housing" as it revises regulations. He criticized proposed legislation requiring builders to reserve a certain percentage of moderately priced units in developments in exchange for getting "density bonuses" allowing them to build more homes, town houses or apartments. He called the exchange a gimmick.
Mr. Rutter questioned whether the affordable housing bills proposed by Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, would work in their current form. Some sites wouldn't be able to accommodate 20 percent increase in density without changes in subdivision regulations, he said. The three-bill package, intended to provide developers with incentives to build affordable housing, was tabled at a Nov. 2 council meeting.
Mr. Rutter offered several examples of how the department is trying to make the development process more efficient and cost-effective.
"Let's not ask for an extra piece of paper if we don't need it," Mr. Rutter said.
Some of the rule changes being considered by county officials would allow side streets to be more narrow than current national standards or buffer spaces to be reduced between town houses and apartments in the same project, Mr. Rutter said. Duplicative services involving several county agencies are being eliminated from the review process, he said.
Mr. Rutter said building occupancy permits have declined from about 3,800 per year in the mid-1980s to about 2,000 per year.
"I know you've struggled through some tough times the last
several years," he told developers.