Law might delay homes; 18-month development moratorium proposed in Middle River area; 'We face ... being besieged'; Officials say ban gives time to design quality housing units


Aiming to avert the prospect of a development feeding frenzy, Baltimore County officials are proposing a moratorium on home construction near a future highway certain to boost growth in the Middle River area.

Legislation will be introduced next month setting an 18-month ban on residential building on half of a 2,000-acre site near the planned $63 million extension of White Marsh Boulevard.

"If we didn't take this step now, we face the prospect of being besieged with plans and rezoning requests, representing perhaps thousands of lower-quality housing units," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat who will introduce the measure during the County Council's Dec. 20 meeting.

But some land-use specialists, like Towson engineer David S. Thaler, are skeptical about the proposed ban.

"Moratoria are like sledgehammers. They should be used sparingly," said Thaler. "To assure there isn't a rush of development is good, but development shouldn't be discouraged either."

Officials like Gardina recall the unchecked growth of apartments and townhouses in the 1960s and 1970s. Those developments, many in the blue-collar communities of Essex, Middle River and Dundalk, later deteriorated and contributed to the proliferation of low-income housing and crime.

Federal officials are expected next month to approve the 3-mile extension of Route 43, or White Marsh Boulevard, from Pulaski Highway to Eastern Boulevard. Officials says the highway, expected to be completed in 2005, will give a much-needed economic boost to the east side, which over the past decades has seen the loss of tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs. Office parks, light industry and housing are envisioned for the area that is now woodland and protected wetlands.

The proposed moratorium would give planners time to design a comprehensive residential community, perhaps traditional homes on large lots with open spaces, county officials say.

"Houses would be closer to the street, garages and automobiles in the background," said Arnold F. Keller, county planning director. "It's an evolution back to neighborhoods like Stoneleigh, Parkville and Catonsville, where residents knew people down the block."

A slow approach to residential development in the area, Keller said, would avoid an "off to the races" mentality among some builders who would apply for rezoning. "It's going to be a choice location, one step out of White Marsh, and we should be deliberate in our planning and zoning. Right now, there is an eclectic mix of residential zoning in that area," he said.

The moratorium will differ from the county's proposed Adequate Public Facilities Law, backed by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and expected to be passed in January. Under that law, construction of new homes would not be permitted unless schools have room for additional students and builders set aside land for parks.

Under Gardina's ban, no building plans would be accepted by the county in the area dubbed the Middle River/Bird River Residential Study Area. Residential construction plans already submitted would not be affected by the moratorium, he said.

The ban would not affect the eastern half of the 2,000-acre tract, zoned for light industry, where the county hopes to draw corporate development and as many as 9,000 jobs.

The western area is bounded by the A. V. Williams property near Pulaski Highway, Eastern Boulevard, Wampler Road and the White Marsh Boulevard extension. There are about 500 homes there, the oldest built about 10 years ago. The neighborhoods where some of those homes are located were thrown together haphazardly, Gardina said.

"In some cases, houses are so close you can step from one person's deck to the next," Gardina said. "Others are less crowded together. But that's what we want to avoid, a hodgepodge of developments, erratic zoning, and create a consistent quality of housing units."

Gardina said the prospect of the White Marsh Boulevard extension began drawing requests to build new homes in that area four years ago. At that time, Gardina opposed a plan by Victor Posner, head of Security Management Corp., to build 900 townhouses.

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