Homesites may be fewer than thought


The amount of land remaining for residential development in Baltimore County is much less than county officials had thought, according to a study commissioned by the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

The RESI economic think tank at Towson University unveiled a two-month study showing that 4,611 parcels, representing 5,783 acres and 15,047 residences, remain available for residential development in Baltimore County under current zoning regulations.

In contrast, Baltimore County Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller told an audience at yesterday's Fourth Annual Maryland Conference on Growth that his office had estimated that anywhere between 28,000 and 32,000 potential residences existed.

Keller added that the Maryland Department of Planning had the county's remaining lots for development at 69,524.

"We hope that people will recognize that our children may not have [new] houses [to buy] in Baltimore County," said T. Kevin Carney, president of the builders' association, which sponsored the event. "Fifteen thousand lots is probably a three-year supply, and unless something is done or something is said, there is going to be a shortage."

The Building Industry Foundation, the nonprofit, educational arm for the homebuilders' group, paid for the $42,000 study. The goal was to convince county planning directors that a uniform methodology, using high-tech mapping technologies, could be used to determine how much land remains in Maryland for residential construction.

The trade group had complained over the years that buildable-land projections were based more on guesses than on statistics.

Keller, whose office cooperated with the study by supplying data, said that he was "pleased with the results" and that the discrepancies did not surprise him.

He told the audience, made up not only of builders but also of environmentalists and politicians, that the county is in the middle of doing its own land study. He also said he thought the Maryland Home Builders Association's numbers were a little low, but he didn't criticize how the organization arrived at the final tally.

"I think the inventories are very critical," Keller said. "We shouldn't as county planners shy away from looking at those numbers. I think where we end up is a much larger [and] bigger discussion.

"The long-term task is what happens when that cup fills up. That is the premier question. That is the dialogue that the homebuilders want to have. And that is the answer that I don't know anybody can give. The public will determine that."

The study comes as the builders' association has made an effort in the last year to redefine "smart growth" issues and build a consensus among community and environmental activists.

Theresa Pierno, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said it is time for builders and environmentalists to "work together. We are coming to a point of crisis. ... . We can't fight over each piece of development."

John Kortecamp, executive vice president of the homebuilders' association, said, "We all want the players around the table to listen to facts, not opinions."

David S. Thaler, president of D. S. Thaler & Associates Inc., a land engineering firm., said that 20 years ago all of his business was in Baltimore County. Now the county accounts for 40 percent as builders seek developments elsewhere.

"I view this as the dark side of smart growth," Thaler said. "There is a mass appeal in the industry and politically for smart growth, but the easy part [of smart growth] is agricultural preservation. The hard part is to put the higher densities inside the urban growth boundaries."

Ultimately, the trade group wants legislation introduced in Annapolis that would help determine how land is counted.

"I think the complexity of the laws and regulations we've passed has had a major impact on what is buildable," said Del. Ronald A Guns, the Cecil County Democrat who chairs the House Environmental Matters Committee.

"I think it is going to be a complicated process," added Guns, whose committee would oversee such legislation.

The methodology that RESI used consisted of three phases to determine the land available for residential development and gathered a great deal of information from publicly available data. RESI used computer geo-referencing with digitized zoning maps of Baltimore County. It overlaid that map with the state's Maryland Property View database, which defines all land parcels.

Next, the institute removed unbuildable land from the data base using a number of criteria, including land not zoned for development, land zoned for commercial or industrial use, and areas of environmental constraints.

It also removed land that had a dwelling - or an improvement - on it that was deemed to have more than 50 percent value of the land it was on. If, for example, a piece of land was worth $100,000 and the structure on it was worth $70,000, the institute would eliminate it as a parcel eligible for redevelopment.

"What we are doing is applying these new technologies to existing issues," said Anirban Basu, director of applied economics at RESI, formerly known as the Regional Economic Studies Institute.

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