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Pulte opts not to build in Honeygo Strict guidelines sour top U.S. home builder on county project; Even pitch of roofs dictated; Tenets aimed to ensure quality; but builders fear loss of flexibility


Honeygo is envisioned as an upscale village that will attract homebuyers weary of impersonal suburbs, but don't expect to see the nation's largest homebuilder plant "For Sale" signs there.

Pulte Homes Corp. will not build at Baltimore County's newest planned community, a company official says, pointing to the strict government design guidelines on development there.

That stance underscores concerns about the county's high-stakes Honeygo strategy -- which includes unprecedented guidelines and regulations that address everything from the layout of streets and the pitch of roofs to the location of garages.

Pulte and some other builders fear that the measures, designed to bring "quality" housing to Honeygo, could boost prices while limiting the flexibility needed to meet buyers' evolving demands. And some northeastern Baltimore County landowners complain that the restrictions could drive down property values.

"They create an additional business risk that I am not willing to take as a businessman," said Jeb Bittner, an executive vice president and division manager for Pulte. "Even if I were to determine today that I could build [under the guidelines], if the marketplace changed a year from now, I could find myself owning real estate and not having the flexibility to meet a changing marketplace."

Honeygo is crucial to Baltimore County's growth strategy. The 3,000-acre site between Interstate 95 and Belair Road north of White Marsh is seen as the last chance for a planned community because it is the last large, undeveloped parcel outside the rural, northern county. County officials hope to encourage development that will stem the flow of families to outer suburbs by creating a high-quality community with a small-town feel.

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, who represents the area, said the guidelines are needed to ensure that the poor design and quality in communities in Owings Mills and other parts of the county are not repeated.

"Some of the bad apples in the industry have brought this increased regulation upon themselves," said Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat. "My role, and the county's role, is to promote the quality and uniqueness of Honeygo, and not promote continued cookie-cutter types of developments."

Development restrictions also are designed to protect the county's planned $30 million investment in roads, sewers and other infrastructure, said Wayne Feuerborn, the county planner in charge of the Honeygo district.

Told of Pulte's position, he was unfazed: "Maybe that's good. We'll get a better product out of some of the local people who are here to invest in Baltimore County."

Controversy and delays have long surrounded the project.

In 1994, after a two-year moratorium on growth in the area, the county adopted a plan for Honeygo and passed a law designed to ensure that area schools and other public facilities would not be outstripped by housing growth.

Last year, Gardina sponsored legislation that imposed more restrictive zoning on large parts of Honeygo. The changes will mean a higher proportion of single-family detached houses, and fewer apartments and townhouses.

At one point, 11,000 residential units were proposed for Honeygo, but current zoning would allow about 4,800. Houses are expected to sell for $180,000 to $250,000. Construction began last year at the first housing development in Honeygo.

For about three years, county planners working on design guidelines and zoning regulations for Honeygo met with builders, seeking compromises on a plan that calls for a "traditional town" with grid-pattern streets and town squares. Such detailed restrictions apparently are unique among Baltimore-area counties, say builders and planning experts.

They require townhouses to be brick. They call for developers to consider alleys as a way to keep cars away from the front of the houses. And they prohibit front-entry garages from being built flush with the front of houses.

No issue has raised more concern among builders than the restrictions on garages. This quest is in keeping with principles of "neo-traditional" design, which attempts to limit the overbearing presence of cars and to create attractive streetscapes.

But builders say the regulations would rule out many of their most popular designs: floor plans with a family room behind the garage, and bedrooms above.

Rick Vornadore, manager of the Baltimore North division for Ryan Homes, which has built many houses in White Marsh and Perry Hall, said the design standards may be well-intentioned, but to him they are a waste of energy.

"They seemed to be trying to fix something that wasn't really broken. The customers here in Perry Hall and surrounding areas -- in my opinion, anyway -- have never had any issues about the way the homes were designed."

Jim Joyce, president of the Baltimore division of Ryland Homes, said the regulations would increase development costs by 10 to 15 percent. "I don't think the market will pay for it, in general," he said. "I think that area will be at a competitive disadvantage."

Baltimore County's goal of creating better streetscapes is laudable, said James Constantine, a principal at Community Planning & Research, a Princeton, N.J.-based design company. But builders should be allowed to come up with creative ideas, such as using arbors to soften the effect of front-entry garages, he added.

Some property owners, already hurt by the zoning changes, also object to the guidelines.

"It takes a lot of flexibility from me as a landowner," said George F. "Gus" Moore, who owns 18 acres in Honeygo -- including the peach orchard familiar to drivers on Joppa Road, west of Philadelphia Road. "If it turns out to be a complete flop, who's going to be left holding the bag?"

In the end, the key question is: Will relatively expensive, neo-traditional neighborhoods sell in Honeygo?

Builders hear the virtues of the grid-pattern streets over cul-de-sacs, and ask: Why are houses on courts in the back of suburban neighborhoods always the first to sell? If front-entry garages are so undesirable, why are they proven sellers?

"Homebuyers are rather conservative," said Lloyd Bookout, director of residential research at the Urban Land Institute. "They don't want to make a major investment, as a rule, in something that's going to be unusual in the marketplace."

Nonetheless, a 1995 survey shows a large chunk of homebuyers are interested in neo-traditional housing, said Brooke Warrick, president of American Lives Inc., a market research company. "People like cul-de-sacs because they like safe streets, but if you provide them safe streets in a grid pattern, they like that," Warrick said.

The leading source of apprehension is the higher density of neo-traditional neighborhoods, and that can be overcome with creative design, he said.

Some builders are willing to try.

Charles Weinstein, senior vice president for land acquisitions for Annapolis-based Regency Homes Corp., said builders should be open to neo-traditional housing.

"Change is always worrisome, but I don't quarrel with Baltimore County for trying to find relief from this monolithic design," he said. "We're all going to have to look at our plans again and come up with something new."

Even Bittner, the Pulte executive, said of Honeygo: "I'm also open-minded enough that if I'm wrong, and there's a business opportunity there and the market proves itself, we'll be there."

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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