Trading rising tax bills for sight of rising homes


Old Columbia Pike is a twisting, narrow country road leading sharply downhill to Ellicott City's historic district, dotted with grand older homes on large lots.

But soaring land values are changing the lives of longtime residents and the look of the neighborhood.

Driven by sharply higher property tax assessments based on those rising land prices, people such as June Garno and Ted and Patricia Nelson are soon to see 39 new homes sprout in their back yards along what Howard County has designated a "scenic" road.

On the next block, another 54 homes are planned for the wooded, hilly land that runs from Cooks Lane south along Tiber Branch - just out of sight of the Nelsons' big, wooden 1929 house.

It is the kind of accelerating conversion from Howard's rural past to its ex-urban future that many residents hate to see but that few can resist.

"If you're driving down Old Columbia Pike, it looks very different than it did 10 years ago," said Mary Catherine Cochran, a county native and spokeswoman for Preservation Howard County. "It's kind of sad, in a way."

"I like it the old way, too," said Edward McGinty, 78, who is also selling land along the street, across Old Columbia Pike from his home of more than 15 years. He moved from the St. John's area farther west in Ellicott City because of increased congestion, but it has followed him, he said.

The new homes at the Woods of Tiber Branch will speed the change from a rustic feel to a more crowded, upscale suburban ambiance. Despite misgivings, the families selling their excess land say they are willing to try living with the new neighbors that the development will bring.

New people can be "bossy," said Garno, 85, watching the changes come after 55 years in what she calls her "little county home."

"They don't take into consideration we are old-timers," she said, adding that her nearest "new" neighbors - who occupy a row of eight-year-old tract homes on Sears House Court along her land's northern edge - are not a bother.

More troubling to her is the way big homes are built on small lots.

"They'll put a house on a toothpick," Garno said.

Garno's house actually declined slightly in value in the last round of assessments in January last year, but her land has shot up from $133,000 to $364,000 on the tax rolls, according to assessment records. Garno agreed to sell her excess land to local custom builder Michael Pfau's Trinity Homes.

Pfau recently won preliminary approval to build seven homes on 4.3 acres around Garno's white rancher - as soon as Howard County relieves a school-crowding problem in the area.

He has heavy machinery working on building a street called Nelson House Road and installing underground utilities on the Nelsons' former 17-acre property to hold 32 more houses, including four on lots sold by another neighbor.

In a few years, he expects to build 54 more homes - all in the $600,000-plus price range - on 36 acres owned by the Wurtzer and McGinty families. That land curves behind the Nelsons' home and runs part way down the hill toward Main Street.

After 23 years enjoying their pastoral land, watching deer, fox and rabbits, said Patricia Nelson, "We were not planning to take this step just yet."

But four years ago, when the assessed value of their land rose from $149,000 to $528,600, they knew something had to give.

In January, just before their land sale went to settlement, the assessed value rose to $1 million and the Nelsons' tax bill had more than doubled to nearly $11,000 a year.

"It would have quickly eaten up our savings," Patricia Nelson said.

Maryland and Howard County tax laws limit assessment increases for a house and up to 1 acre at 5 percent a year - but no limit exists for extra land zoned for development.

A retired engineer, Ted Nelson, 69, said he and his 60-year-old wife couldn't afford the added taxes.

At first, they thought they'd sell their house and land and move on, but they changed their minds.

They didn't want to give up their old-fashioned space, with its big, high-ceilinged, formal living and dining rooms, parlor, big screened-in back porch, the little red barn out back, small swimming pool, wide front porch and its gleaming, refinished wood flooring.

Now they are glad they waited. Pfau and Tim Keane, his firm's chief representative, have been wonderful to work with, the Nelsons said, even agreeing to name the streets after the family.

The Nelsons also were able to preserve three wooded lots to buffer their home's north side.

Still, big construction machines have disrupted the summer's quiet.

"We're losing our privacy," Patricia Nelson lamented.

But the couple gained financial security from the $1.37 million sale they agreed to four years ago. That means a retirement free of financial worries - and they still have the opportunity to sell what is left and move when they feel the time is right.

"When the houses are all built, it's still going to look very nice," Ted Nelson said.

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