The rush is on for home building permits in Harford County.
Responding to fears that certain, fast-growing regions of the county could be closed to development in the future, home builders have been showing up in record numbers in recent weeks to obtain permits needed to protect their projects, according to the county's Office of Planning and Zoning.
The technicians processing the requests told Nancy Lipski, chief of site plan and permit review, that "this is crazy" and that the activity has reached levels not seen in years, she said.
July 8 was a particularly hectic day. "We received 82 permit applications that day," said Lipski. "That was the biggest day this year. You have to go back to the mid-1990s to find that many permit applications in a single day."
The next day, 53 requests for building permits were received. The majority of them were for new dwellings, including single-family homes, townhouses, condominiums, apartments and mobile homes.
Lipski said most of the applications were for the Fallston and Bel Air school districts, two regions suffering the most from school crowding. She said the Bel Air district takes in a portion of Abingdon.
The pace has since slowed a bit, she said, but her office is still processing 30 to 45 requests a day. "There are no days when we have only 16 or 17 requests, like in the past."
"The new trend," according to Lipski "is that the majority of the permits are for new homes." In the past, the bulk of the permits would be for improvements to existing homes, such as a deck, a swimming pool, a fence.
Lipski referred to the activity as "a slight panic," as developers respond to concerns and rumors that some of the fastest-growing regions of the county may be closed to future development.
"When the rumors started, we were inundated," she said.
The increased demand for permits comes at a time when the county is looking for ways to fund a new school complex and a task force is studying changes in the adequate public facilities laws as they apply to home construction and schools.
Lipski said the rush began immediately after news reports of a bill to be introduced in the County Council that would have imposed a moratorium on development in sections of the county where schools are overcrowded.
The bill, which was backed by four of the seven council members, would have halted preliminary approval for new homes in any elementary school district where enrollment at a school exceeded 105 percent of its rated capacity.
Changes in bill
For middle and high schools, the law would have stopped preliminary approval in a district when a school exceeded 110 percent of its capacity or was projected to exceed that level in five years.
The current law calls for a moratorium on preliminary approvals when the capacity of schools reaches 120 percent.
The bill that was slated for introduction July 8 was replaced Tuesday by a watered-down version based on a recommendation from Schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas, a member of a county task force studying the adequate public facilities laws.
That bill would impose a moratorium on the county's acceptance of preliminary approval for new housing development in any school district when a school in the district exceeds 115 percent of its rated student capacity.
Susan Stroud Davies, a spokeswoman for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said the recent flurry of permit applications "was a blip caused by a lot of moratorium talk.
"It caused some builders to take out a few more permits to be on the safe side," she said.
Davies said this is something that happens when there is talk of shutting down development in a region.
Have to make payroll
"It's just normal," she said. "These companies have to make payroll and they have to bring products to the marketplace."
Davies said the harsh winter and wet spring, which interrupted normal building activity, also contributed to the run on permit applications last month.
"There was also a lot of rhetoric from certain sections about a building moratorium," she said.
Dion F. Guthrie, the lone Democrat on the council and the primary force behind the movement to change the county's adequate public facilities laws to ease school crowding, said he understands the home builders' rush to nail down their permits, but admitted that it bothers him.
"It's one of the things in this world we can't do anything about," he said.
"Sooner or later we are going to have to step up to the plate and address the pipeline issue," he said referring to the plans for approximately 6,000 homes in the county that already have preliminary approval but are waiting to be built.
"It's a joke," Guthrie said of the current system that allows developers to have so many homes in the pipeline.
"When a moratorium is imposed because a school is overcrowded, nothing happens," he said. "Home construction continues because there are so many homes already in the pipeline."
He used Fallston Middle School as an example. A moratorium on development has been imposed on the Fallston school district as a result of Fallston Middle School having nearly 30 percent more pupils than it was designed to handle.
500 homes in pipeline
"But construction continues there," said Guthrie, "because there are about 500 homes in the pipeline that have already been approved for the Fallston area."
Guthrie said he will be talking with other council members in coming weeks to seek support for legislation to address the large number of houses in the pipeline.
DeLane Lewis, one of the disgruntled parents who have been attending council meetings in recent months demanding action, is disappointed with the latest legislative proposal.
She told council members that the proposed bill "has no teeth" and does nothing to prevent a large number of new homes from coming into a neighborhood where the schools are filled beyond capacity. Lewis is a lawyer with two children in Fallston Middle School.
"I'm extremely disappointed with Mrs. Haas' recommendation," said Lewis, who waited to nearly 11:30 Tuesday night to address council members. "It is a betrayal of her trust of the children of this county."
Deb Merlock of the Harford County Council of PTAs said she could not blame developers for snatching up building permits when they don't know the impact of potential future legislation on their business. "I expected this to happen."
She said it concerns her because any new development will be putting more children in schools before a new school can be built.