In Howard County government's boldest move since the early 1970s, County Executive James N. Robey wants to buy 25 acres in Ellicott City to build a second county office complex during the next decade.
The campus would include three or four buildings for agencies such as planning and zoning, permits, finance and public works. That would make room for an expansion of the County Council's quarters and allow offices operating in Columbia and elsewhere to return to the county seat.
Howard's population has more than tripled in three decades, and Robey said it's time to plan for the future instead of trying to get by with offices scattered across the county.
"We can't keep spreading central government out depending on where a building becomes available. I don't know of any other government spread out like we are," he said, noting that officials waste time driving between county offices.
The heavily wooded and hilly site is zoned for an office park or mixed-use development. Advertised for sale or lease for years, the land is inside a triangle formed by U.S. 40, Rogers Avenue and Ridge Road, a quarter-mile from the existing office complex.
If approved by the County Council, the $3.175 million purchase would mark the second major transformation of government offices since the existing office complex was built more than 25 years ago.
For more than a century, county commissioners ruled from the courthouse in historic Ellicott City. But as Howard grew, county government also expanded, building four large buildings on Court House Drive, near U.S. 40 in the early 1970s.
The county work force has more than doubled since 1980, officials say.
Now, despite a major courthouse expansion 10 years ago, court offices have run out of room. Although the county bought the former AlliedSignal building off Route 108 last year, a consultant says an additional 147,000 square feet of space is needed.
The three or four buildings on the new Ellicott City site could include space for court-related offices.
James M. Irvin, county public works director, says the 200,000-square-foot AlliedSignal building will be filled in a few months with warehouse space for the schools, a traffic signal shop, training facilities for public safety workers and reduced-rate space for start-up businesses.
A $1.9 million renovation planned for the two smallest buildings in the existing complex will be delayed, Irvin said, until a development strategy is approved.
County police are also set to move into their former Ellicott City headquarters, which have undergone a $3.9 million renovation.
Money to buy land for the new complex would come from two sources: $1.5 million saved from costs to cap the old landfill on New Cut Road, and $1.8 million allocated for land acquisition in the capital budget.
Robey said the new campus would represent a consolidation rather than an expansion. He wants to sell far-flung county property in Columbia and along U.S. 1 and use the money to build in Ellicott City.
The high-rise Gateway building in Columbia was bought for $3.4 million during the recession in 1993 and is worth three times that, Irvin said, because it is in a booming office park near Interstate 95.
The Department of Recreation and Parks occupies a former office building on Oakland Mills Road in Columbia, and Robey said the AlliedSignal building is 27 acres, some of which could be be sold. In addition, he said, the county owns surplus land along U.S. 1 in Elkridge.
"We're one of the largest landowners in the county," Robey said he has discovered.
Reaction to the land purchase plan has been favorable, although County Council members want more detailed proposals before approving new buildings.
Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, favors buying the land, the last large open tract in the area. But he is more cautious about plans for new buildings.
"I like the fact that the government complex would be in one location," he said, adding, however, that reducing the county's debt should come before any new spending on office buildings.
Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an East Columbia Democrat, said Robey's plan is "a great idea." Former County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, also likes the plan.
Larry Baer, a retiree who lives across Rogers Avenue from the wooded site, said the county's plans don't bother him, but he would "like to know a lot more" about any building plans.
Ann Alexander, his neighbor, said she would rather see woods than buildings, but "there's nothing we can do about it."
Alexander, who lives in the home that her grandparents bought in 1960, said the area of U.S. 40 and Rogers Avenue has developed beyond recognition.
Pub Date: 11/25/99