Panel facing 2 land issues

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Plans to expand Turf Valley, the luxury development in Ellicott City, have triggered a protracted and contentious dispute, estranging residents and owner, residents and planning officials - and at times residents and residents - over the past 12 months.

The Planning Board this week will seek to extricate itself from the controversy. But first, it must consider two issues: a proposal to require developers of large subdivisions to set aside land for public schools, and Turf Valley's petition to increase the density of its expansion.

The first issue has implications far beyond Turf Valley. In an unprecedented move, the Howard County Board of Education late last year joined with Turf Valley residents in opposing the expansion by demanding that developers of large subdivisions be required to provide land for schools.

"The way we are operating right now, we are in competition with everybody else to secure property for our needs," says David C. Drown, coordinator of geographical information systems for the school system. "It's gotten to the point where it's almost impossible to compete on a level playing field.

"It's difficult for us to compete on price, and it's difficult for us to compete in terms of [land] availability."

It is ironic that the battle line for the policy was drawn at the entrance of Turf Valley. The sprawling development is exempt from the county's Adequate Public Facilities Act, which manages growth by denying or delaying development unless infrastructure such as roads and schools can handle the influx of people spurred by a subdivision.

The Board of Education's position is not necessarily an indictment of the proposed expansion of Turf Valley, but an appeal for a significant shift in county policy so that developers must factor in the need for schools when their subdivisions are fully built and occupied.

The dilemma faced by the burgeoning school system is severe. It needs a minimum of 15 acres for an elementary school, and as many as 50 acres for a high school. But such large tracts are scarce in most regions of the county, and where they do exist, prices are skyrocketing.

The school system is paying between $3 million and $5 million for an elementary school site, or as much as $350,000 an acre, Drown said. Those costs would be substantially reduced if the land set-aside policy were enacted and the school system could acquire the land at "current use rate," or before improvements are made to the property.

Raw land, Drown said, would cost more in the neighborhood of $50,000 an acre, but once developers put in roads and sewers "it goes to $250,000 [or] $350,000."

"It's important," Drown said. "I would say we wouldn't be asking for it if it wasn't."

The Department of Planning and Zoning has not taken a position on the policy proposal, but the Planning Board is expected to consider the proposal tomorrow when it meets to, among other things, take a position on what density to support at Turf Valley.

Although a set-aside policy could not be retroactive to affect Turf Valley, there are behind-the-scenes discussions with the owner of the development, Mangione Family Enterprises, to see if it will offer a parcel for a future school site. Those talks reportedly have focused on 15 acres at Marriottsville Road and U.S. 40.

Behind the proposal is the question of density, or how many houses, and thus people, will make up a subdivision.

Turf Valley has 135 homes and 26 villas, a hotel and resort center and two golf courses. Zoning regulations permit Mangione to build an additional 1,379 units and about 1 million square feet in commercial space, although the developer's plans would use only 442,000 square feet.

Mangione is seeking county approval to increase the density from two homes an acre to 2.15 homes an acre, which would add about 121 units.

Many residents in and around Turf Valley, oppose the higher density, and say the number of homes per acre would be far greater than acknowledged, because 150 acres would be used for commercial and another 400 acres are for golf courses and open space.

"That leaves you with 250 acres for 2,000 units," said Marc Norman, co-chairman of a regional organization formed to fight the expansion. "You end up with a density of seven or eight units per acre - extremely north of two units per acre. Mangione has complete flexibility to put what he wants where he wants it."

Louis Mangione, vice president of the company and the front man for the development, was unavailable for comment. But he has consistently said that any expansion would safeguard the appeal of Turf Valley, as well as the interests of those who reside there now.

Although the Planning Board may be close to getting Turf Valley off its plate, the issues will not go away soon.

They will simply move to the County Council, and with them will come intense lobbying.

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