As county maps development, council frets over plan's effects


Howard County's attempt to chart its future in a new 20-year General Plan has reached a critical point - the down-to-earth concerns of practicing politicians.

The first of three County Council public hearings is tonight at Atholton High School, and the council's five members got a chance yesterday to ask questions about the draft plans during a three-hour work session with Robey administration officials - the first of three such sessions.

Two more public hearings are scheduled, for June 22 at Hammond High School and June 29 at Glenelg High. Legislation adopting a final plan will be introduced to the council in September, said Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat.

Beneath the broad sweep of general goals in the plan - preserving the rural west, staving off blight and rebuilding older areas, and setting the pace for future growth - are the day-to-day concerns that confront council members.

"We need to clearly define what is meant by 'infill,'" said C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat who has been on the council since 1982.

Gray and the other council members know that as land available for development becomes scarce and builders concentrate new homes on a few remaining lots, voters angered by the proposals might have only one outlet for their frustration - their councilman.

Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon is facing those pressures, as builders vie for every 5-acre hillside lot, driving up land prices and property taxes. County government was caught in the same spiral, unable to find land for an elementary school until a land owner-developer offered a site.

"Most undeveloped land is in the west, but we want most development in the eastern county," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., county planning director.

County planners predict that growth soon will begin to slow throughout Howard, one of Maryland's fastest-growing counties, and that by 2010 no more large parcels will be left to develop.

If the county continues to protect the rural west by refusing to extend public water and sewer lines, pressure will grow to concentrate as many new homes as possible on small lots passed over because of their size, access or topography.

Marsha McLaughlin, the deputy county planning director, said that because of the pressure to develop, it's a good idea for community groups to be involved in public planning early.

"It's really important to be involved in the front end," she said.

At the same time, other older communities, such as North Laurel, need government help with amenities such as sidewalks and street lighting.

That brought still another warning from council members worried that overeager attempts to foist "improvements" on older neighborhoods also could set their office phones ringing.

"There are many communities out there that don't want that," Lorsung cautioned, stressing again to the planners the "importance of involving communities in these things."

Some people aren't interested in becoming community activists and monitoring development plans or zoning in their neighborhoods either, but just "go to work and come home and that's all they want. They don't want community pride," Merdon said.

Rutter said there is little danger of government trying to force unwanted services on communities.

"More communities will come forward [seeking help] than we'll be able to handle," Rutter predicted.

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