Howard County residents sitting in traffic jams and eyeing new homes might believe that development is running rampant, but the facts say otherwise, according to Marsha S. McLaughlin, the planning director.
"We think development is actually pretty well-phased. It is a challenge to convey that to citizens," McLaughlin told County Council members this week - including council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, and west Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman, both candidates for county executive.
The pace of residential growth has dropped sharply while commercial construction is booming, McLaughlin said, noting figures in the county's 14th annual Development Monitoring System Report, which tracks development since the adoption of the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, known as APFO. The latest report covers Oct. 1, 2004, to Sept. 30, 2005.
McLaughlin said that further growth restrictions will only drive home prices - which rose 77 percent over the past four years - higher because "we're not manufacturing any more land."
The report said that grouping new houses in clusters in the western county is preserving thousands of acres of open land, though residents often criticize the practice.
Of the 10,390 acres of the rural west subdivided since the law took effect in 1992, 72 percent, or about 7,479 acres, "have gone into preservation or permanent open space" due to clustering new homes on small portions of development tracts, the report said.
Councilman Chares C. Feaga, a western county Republican, said that when he extols clustering at meetings "people don't believe me. You can't sell it to the public."
Ulman joked that the county could advertise the benefits of clustering by erecting billboards on preserved land reading, "This is preserved."
The much-maligned APFO was designed to delay new homes around crowded schools and intersections, and, despite criticism, it has done the job, McLaughlin said. The law was tightened in 2000 to include middle schools and lower the crowding threshold from 120 percent to 115 percent. That means that if an elementary or middle school is more than 115 percent over local program capacity, building is delayed for up to four years. In addition, the county's classroom capacity limits are lower than state standards, giving the law extra strength.
According to the document: "Residential growth has been effectively managed. Prior to its [APFO's] adoption, the county was averaging more than 3,000 new houses per year. The rate has been reduced by about half since the adoption of the 2000 General Plan."
An average of 1,685 homes per year have been built in the county since 2000, and of the 1,650 units built last year, 484 were homes for senior adults, the report said.
In addition, 1,472 proposed homes are being delayed by the county under the law, the report said. In some areas, such as Elkridge, a builder who wants today to build a new home must wait until 2014 just to get permission to go forward, while most large developments in the county are being built in phases, which, McLaughlin said, makes the growth easier to absorb.
Council members did not disagree with McLaughlin's presentation. Merdon suggested the county lease additional office space to allow her staff to expand so it can process nonresidential projects more quickly, while he said landowners in Elkridge complain to him that they have to wait years to reap the full value of selling their land because of the lengthy delays.
Feaga said, "We're doing a pretty darn good job managing growth the last 15 years." Councilmen Guy Guzzone and David A. Rakes did not attend.
After the meeting, Merdon said he is getting a different story from constituents.
"What I hear from citizens is that they're spending too much time in traffic and their kids are in portable classrooms or being redistricted," he said, adding that county has been too slow in building schools and widening roads.
Ulman, who is working on a major redevelopment plan to urbanize central Columbia, said, "People feel frustrated. I understand that."
Still, he said, "I think it is important to recognize that the county has made large strides."
Traffic is too congested, he said, mainly because of commuters passing through Howard County from homes farther west or north. The answer, he said, is more state and regional coordination - and financial aid.
Harry M. Dunbar, a Democrat running for county executive, said he has not seen the report, but he is not buying McLaughlin's assertions.
"I feel every time I turn a corner, there's somebody building something," he said. "I don't want Howard County to turn into a Los Angeles."
Courtney Watson, a school board member, a former member of the county's APFO committee and a County Council candidate, said the push for slower growth is being fueled by resentment that has built up over years.
"People upset about growth are upset about the cumulative effect of growth. What the community sees is the last 10 years of rapid growth," she said.
The most explosive growth is in nonresidential projects, which are leaping forward at a record pace, McLaughlin said.
The county issued building permits last year for 3.8 million square feet of nonresidential construction - double the previous year's total and a single-year record since the annual reports began, the document said. That category includes three school buildings, which amount to 325,000 square feet.
Most of this space is commercial, however, along Interstate 95 and in Columbia, where, for example, one warehouse in the Dorsey Run Industrial Center accounted for 600,000 square feet. The Dreyer's Ice Cream plant expansion in North Laurel covers 273,000 square feet and the Lifetime Fitness gym in Columbia accounts for 108,000 square feet.
The number of dwellings issued occupancy permits in Howard County over five years:
10/00 to 9/01 1,904
10/01 to 9/02 1,951
10/02 to 9/03 1,397
10/03 to 9/04 1,522
10/04 to 9/05 1,650