Howard County is growing up, slowing down and getting older.
The proposed new 20-year General Plan released by the administration of County Executive James N. Robey predicts that in 2020, people older than 45 (47 percent) will nearly equal those younger (53 percent) and where the retirement crowd will be the fastest-growing group.
Howard's population, which tripled in the 20 years before 1990, will rise only 20 percent, to 303,000, over the next two decades as the explosive growth that has made the small county one of Maryland's most prosperous throttles back.
The plan proposes no new highways, no new development-friendly zoning categories and an average of 1,500 new homes a year -- 1,000 fewer than in the 1990 plan.
"Senior day care will take on a greater role than child day care," county planning director Joseph W. Rutter said, adding that Howard's top job will be preserving and redeveloping older neighborhoods, not planning new ones.
"I believe this document is on target with our socioeconomic climate and in sync with the desires of this community," Robey said in announcing the draft, which was released Friday. The county planning board will hold a public hearing on the draft at 7: 30 p.m. May 8 in the County Council chambers.
Not everyone has Robey's view, however.
Gregory Fries, president of the Southern Howard County Land Use Committee, a group fighting plans for two large, mixed-use developments in the Fulton-North Laurel area, says too much will be built in the southeastern part of the county.
Robey wants a cap of 2,000 new homes through 2005, 1,500 a year through 2016 and 1,000 units a year to 2020 -- including preservation of the rural west by not extending public water and sewer pipes.
"I think that's above the pace that the county can handle. I think that's still certainly overwhelming the county's ability to keep up," Fries said.
Rutter, however, said it is better for new development to go into large, planned communities, where the county has more control over design and placement, than sprinkled across isolated small parcels of land throughout the county.
Fries and his allies are fighting to stop, delay or curtail a Rouse Co. project in North Laurel and one by Pikesville developer Stuart Greenebaum in nearby Fulton that would together place 2,500 new homes and more than 1 million square feet of new commercial and office space in their semirural midst over the next decade. Both projects are pushing through court and administrative battles.
"It's too much in too short a period of time. I don't know how they're going to keep pace with that," Fries said.
Despite the continuing fight over new development, Howard officials' goal is turning more to saving what's here, officials said.
To do that, Rutter said, the county has to tighten enforcement -- both on property maintenance and environmental protections.
Stream and wetland buffers and steep slopes must be better protected, he said, while the county buys more land for parkland and the development rights to more rural lands.
The plan suggests stronger homeownership programs for moderate- and low-income families, to help the county keep a varied work force and to keep older townhouses from turning into investor-owned rentals.
"Twenty years from now, there will be areas of Columbia 50 years old. Will some of that housing be appropriate for redevelopment? In older areas of Elkridge, North Laurel, the land may be more valuable than the units," Rutter said. That may help transform older areas for uses later.
Some questions remain unanswered, Rutter said:
What will happen to all the big "McMansion" houses popping up in Clarksville, Glenwood, West Friendship and western Ellicott City when the owners' kids grow up and move out? "Are we going to have two active seniors living in a 4,000-square-foot house?"
The plan recommends setting aside 250 allocations in the eastern part of the county for housing designed especially for seniors -- something Rutter wants to encourage.
These could be townhouse flats, he said, one-level units with enough room for grandchildren or other visitors.
Will Columbia's central, or downtown, core continue to change and develop? Only 75 open acres remain, but Rutter noted that some small, older buildings near the mall may eventually be demolished and replaced by larger ones.
One thing Robey hopes to know -- if the plan is amended and adopted later this year -- is whether it will be used.