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More growth seen in Howard's future


Howard County residents, be forewarned: More growth is on its way.

In coming years, roads will become more crowded. Farmland and woodland will succumb to housing developments. The "rural west" will become increasingly suburban. The quality of life -- as many people define it -- will decline.

It's all laid out in the latest draft of the 2000 General Plan, the document that will guide the county's growth through the next 20 years. The County Council will hold a hearing on the plan tomorrow night and is scheduled to vote on it Oct. 2.

No matter how much residents complain about their property values going down, the fact remains that land-use patterns in Howard County are largely set. The population is expected to grow by 20 percent in the next 20 years. The county will one day have roughly 32,000 more housing units than it does now.

That means more trees cut down, more houses on what is now farmland, more children in schools, and more cars on the roads. It means that some scenic roads in Ellicott City will soon be lined with houses and that cars on two-lane rural highways in western Howard will crawl during rush hour.

The plan lays out impressive-sounding goals: The county would slow growth, preserve 5,000 acres of farmland in the west, acquire more county parkland, protect woodlands, wetlands and scenic roads.

But for all its lofty goals, the plan also notes how difficult it is to keep up with growth. It notes that traffic congestion will increase over the next 20 years, with no solutions in sight; that most of the green space in the western part of the county is privately owned, which means residents won't have access to it; that there likely will be a shortage of parks in the eastern part of the county, where land is scarce and expensive; that forests throughout Howard County will continue to be lost to development.

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, said all land in the county has one of two fates: preservation or development. He said it wouldn't be fair for the county to force property owners to put their land in preservation, which means that more development is on its way.

"This is the kind of fight we're having with the state," Rutter said. "They want us to take away the value of the property. ... We're not going to take the people who have held on over all these years to their private property and take away its value."

Unlike some surrounding counties, Rutter said, Howard does not have a rural zoning category: one house for every 20 or 50 acres. There, he said, the west is zoned so that it "encourages farming but doesn't take away all the property value." A lot in western Howard can sell for up to $200,000, and houses there can sell for more than $1 million. As a result, pressure to develop the land is enormous.

Of the estimated 40,000 acres of farmland in the county, about 16,390 acres -- 41 percent -- are subject to permanent Agricultural Land Preservation Program easements. About 4,000 acres are in the eastern part of the county and are not the focus of preservation efforts.

In the west, the land not committed to development or preservation totals 23,300 acres. The Carroll family -- descendants of Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence -- owns the biggest area of undeveloped land, Rutter said. Technically, he said, it's several parcels; about 700 acres are in permanent agricultural preservation and the rest -- 1,200 or 1,300 acres -- has a historic easement that expires in several years, leaving the land vulnerable to development pressure.

The rural western part of Howard lies between more urbanized areas in Carroll and Montgomery counties. Through traffic in the county makes up more than half the cars on Interstate 70, Interstate 95, Route 32 and Route 97, and ranges to as high as 82 percent of daily traffic on some roadways. In coming years, the amount of through traffic is expected to increase, which will put pressure on roads in the west originally built to serve farming communities.

In the east, almost all the undeveloped land is committed to some nonfarm use. In Ellicott City, the woods near Main Street soon will have hundreds of houses. Bruce Taylor, medical director and chief executive officer of Taylor Manor hospital, and his family own about 400 acres of woods destined to hold more than 500 houses.

Two major mixed-use projects are planned in southern Howard, where there are hundreds of acres of farmland. The Rouse Co. wants to develop 665 acres in North Laurel, and developer Stewart J. Greenebaum intends to build houses and commercial space on 508 acres of farmland in Fulton.

Although nearby residents have vehemently opposed these developments, planners say it makes sense to pack density into the eastern part of the county, alleviating some of the pressure on the west.

But that doesn't help the county's traffic problem. In 20 years, the number of vehicle trips in the county is expected to increase about 28 percent, while through trips from other counties are expected to increase 37 percent. The plan notes that portions of I-70, I-95, U.S. 40 and Route 100 will have congestion problems in the future.

Dennis Luck, chairman of the Howard chapter of the Sierra Club, said he wishes there were a way to revitalize Baltimore rather than letting more and more people move to Howard County.

He acknowledged a feeling of powerlessness to change the root causes of the problem: people fleeing crime and poor schools in Baltimore; farmers selling their land to developers because they can no longer afford to make a living off that land. Some people, he said, just don't want to widen crowded roads, but he doesn't think that goes to the root of the problem.

"You're going to have a citizens' uprising, probably, once it becomes a total gridlock," Luck said. "Once you add more lanes, they will get saturated too."

In 1992, the county passed the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which can delay development projects to give the county time to lay down an infrastructure of schools and roads. The 2000 General Plan draft proposes reducing construction of housing units and putting a cap of 250 housing units a year in the west, said Jeff Brownow, chief of the research division for Planning and Zoning. It also commits to adding 5,000 more acres to agricultural preservation, he said.

Also, this General Plan would not extend public water and sewer into the west, which is expected to help keep growth there under control.

Luck said he isn't convinced that growth in the county will slow. Unless residents are vigilant, he said, development pressures will induce county leaders one day to expand sewer and water into the west and change zoning laws to allow more development.

"There's never going to be a build-out," Luck said. "They're dreaming."

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