Builders seek to pay fees rather than put up modest homes

Howard County developers are pressing for another way to satisfy their moderate-income housing obligations, claiming they can't afford to build middle-income homes amid the luxury units they are selling for record-high prices.

A group of nearly a dozen developers and lawyers, along with a representative from the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, met with county planning and housing officials and asked for permission to pay the county fees instead of building the homes, participants said.

The builders argue that the cost of building luxury units is so high that they lose money on the moderately priced ones. High monthly fees that residents must pay reduce the size of a mortgage that middle-income buyers can afford, making the problem worse.

County zoning law grants builders the right to build more homes in a project in return for providing free house lots for moderate-income houses, which are required in mixed-use, high-density and planned senior communities.

School enrollment plateau is foreseen

Howard County school officials have predicted for some time that pupil enrollment would peak by 2008 and then start falling, a theory that has driven school and home construction decisions. But no more.

A "plateau theory" has taken hold at school board headquarters, and it is winning confidence among often-skeptical county officials, parents and school board members trying to plan how many more classrooms will be needed.

David C. Drown, manager of school planning, said he believes school enrollments will continue climbing -- but at a slow pace, reaching a plateau of about 50,700 by 2010. Enrollment should stay around that level for the foreseeable future.

"We don't show anything showing a decrease in enrollment," Drown told the county's Spending Affordability Committee at a meeting this month.

County analysis shows a low tax burden

Although Howard residents have been hit with a big income tax increase and face skyrocketing property values, a budget office analysis shows their local tax bills are among the lowest in the region.

Howard's local tax bill remains third-lowest among metropolitan subdivisions, just above Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, despite an income tax increase last year that brought Howard's rate to the legal limit of 3.2 percent.

"The question we were trying to answer is: If you are a Howard resident, what is your tax rate comparable to somebody else -- if you picked them up and plopped them down in another place?" said Raymond S. Wacks, Howard's budget director, who produced the analysis.

As benchmarks, the survey uses Howard's median house value of $395,750 and household income of $82,900, prompting complaints that such high figures are not accurate when applied to other jurisdictions. Four years ago, when Wacks did a similar survey, the median Howard house value was $176,500 and the median household income was $69,200.

Budget chief predicts a $5.8 million surplus

Rising property and income tax revenue should provide Howard County with a surplus at the end of the fiscal year, June 30, that is three times higher than last year's -- but still a relatively small financial cushion, county officials said Tuesday.

Raymond S. Wacks, the county's budget director, told the county's Spending Affordability Committee that he estimates property taxes will produce $3.7 million more than expected, followed by $1.3 million more from income taxes and $1 million from other levies -- mainly the real estate recordation tax. Investment income, meanwhile, might decline by $200,000, he said.

Of the estimated $5.8 million surplus, about $3 million must go into the county's Rainy Day Fund, Wacks told the committee. The remainder would be roughly three times the $750,000 surplus the budget produced in the last fiscal year but is still small compared with the $12 million to $20 million surpluses during the late 1990s.

Columbia leaders propose a summit on land use

With the future of downtown Columbia in the balance, town leaders have come up with interesting proposal: Take key players -- residents, developers, county officials -- put them in a room for seven days and hope they come out with a master plan.

"Columbia is nothing if not an example of what good planning can do," said Joshua Feldmark, board chairman of the Columbia Association, which has proposed sponsoring the weeklong summit this spring.

In recent years, this process -- known as a charrette -- has become popular.

"It's because of increased pressure of growth these days on communities," said Bill Lennertz, director of the nonprofit National Charrette Institute. "As a result, everyone's getting more involved in land-use issues and increasing the need for collaboration."

Last year, some residents and county officials bitterly resisted and defeated the Rouse Co.'s attempt to build more residential buildings near Merriweather Post Pavilion. Since then, Rouse has been sold, but its successor, General Growth Properties, has proposed similar plans to build retail and office buildings on the same land and to sell the nearby pavilion as an indoor venue.

In addition, condominiums are being built near The Mall in Columbia. And the county is considering changing zoning laws that have governed Columbia development since its inception.

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