Builders are paying so much for leftover land in northeastern Howard County that some residents are facing sharply higher property tax assessments -- and pressure to develop their land or move.
It's a vicious cycle driven by the growing scarcity of building lots in the Ellicott City and Elkridge areas -- and by a quirk in Maryland's tax laws. A state cap on assessment increases covers only a home and 1 acre. As a result, retirees and others who own more acreage could face thousands of dollars in new taxes.
"They're pretty much saying to people, 'We're going to tax you so much until you can't live there,' " said Theodore Nelson, 65, who with his wife, Patricia, is facing a steep tax increase on their 17-acre Old Columbia Pike homestead.
Building homes in older areas is a mainstay of the state's Smart Growth program, and of Howard's decision to preserve land in the rural west, but it can have unintended effects, some say.
"It's just like every little piece of buildable property is being built on. You have these beautiful old homes, and they're proposing putting townhouses in front of them.
In a lot of places, it's not welcome," said Kevin Do County Council members from office in 1990. Two years later, the county reduced zoning density on acreage of this kind of "infill" land, said P. David Fields, former county planning director.
If fast-growing Howard County wants to preserve its rural west by keeping public water and sewers out, builders say, then the price of eastern land is bound to rise as the county moves closer to full development.
State tax assessors say they are doing their job -- attaching true values to land zoned for residential development. And politicians say they were unaware of the asessment-increase problem.
Forced to sell
But the higher taxes are threatening to force people like the Nelsons to think about selling some of theri wooded Ellicott City property, even though that was not their intention.
"The bottom line is, it forces us to sell to a developer. We can't afford to pay double the taxes," Patricia Nelson said. The full value of their land is due to rise from $149,000 to $528,600 over three years -- a tax increase of nearly $5,000. "We don't want to move," she said.
Wayne and Sandra Pfau, though younger than the Nelsons, are in the same boat.
The letter carrier and his wife, a school aide, built their two-story house on Landing Road in Ellicott City 23 years ago for $65,000. Now, with two young children, their 27 acres is set to increase in full assessed value from $120,000 to $508,000 over the next three years, even as their house is expected to decline slightly in value. The increased land value could mean more than $4,000 a year in new property taxes.
"We're feeling the squeeze. We're really boxed in," Sandra Pfau said, adding that "when we moved here it wasn't a particularly attractive part of town."
That has changed, said Trinity Homes President Michael L. Pfau, who thinks he may be distantly related to Wayne Pfau, but does not know him.
In Jauary, Trinity Homes bought a wooded, hilly 6.1-acre parcel on Florey Road, off Hanover Road in Elkridge, where 17 detached houses are to be built, selling for about $230,000 each. The same land was sold less than three years ago for $90,000, but Trinity paid $459,000.
The sale was noted by Kent T. Finkelsen, assistant supervisor of Maryland's Department of Assessments and Taxation, as an example of how much values have increased. State officials tell people about the state's forest conservation and tax credit programs for low-income homeowners -- ways of avoiding the higher tax bills.
"We don't try to tax people out of their homes. But we have to put a fair market value on the property," said Howard Levenson, assessment supervisor for Howard. Assessors also Land take into account steep hills, wetlands and other topographic conditions that make building difficult, he said.
"The Elkridge area is becoming a very popular place to live," Michael Pfau said. People still value Howard County schools as one of the state's best public school systems. "They're convinced the place to be is Howard County," he said.
Another parcel, just over 5 acres in the 4900 block of Ilchester Road, was sold for $450,000 -- $88,000 an acre --in December and is part of the 101- home Crestwood development by NV Homes.
"This is what happens when you get close to build-out," said Barbara N. Seely, president of the Howard County Association of Realtors.
"There's not much left to build on. We're finding that builders are coming in and paying a premium on the land."
Thomas M. Ballentine, government affairs director for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said Howard's effort to preserve the west while avoiding congestion in the east is a difficult task.
"You're folding development back on itself. I think it's foolish to underestimate the amount of population growth in the future," he said, adding that the county has to accommodate growth.
Howard is still growing faster than any other county in the Baltimore metropolitan area, according to the latest census estimates. Nearly 8,000 people moved to Howard between mid-1998 and 1999.
None know that better than Russell and Shirleymarie Hawes.
The retired couple have lived on their 5.6 acres on View Top Road, on a hill overlooking U.S. 29 near Route 100, since 1954. "I remember when it was a sleepy two lanes," Russell Hawes, 77, said, as he contemplated a $55,000 proposed assessment increase on his land alone.
"I'd like to see anyone spend a Sunday sitting on our patio and try to hold a conversation," he said about the unremitting traffic noise.
"They squeeze in much more, and you're going to have gridlock in this county."