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Work force housing sells


With home prices soaring in recent years, the Carroll County commissioners and the mayors of Carroll's municipalities have reinvigorated efforts to build more affordable housing, setting a goal of encouraging more people to live in the county where they work.

"What can we do to make sure we don't have firefighters and police driving in from Howard?" Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said recently during a meeting between county and Westminster officials. "We've got to come up with ways to meet the needs for local services."

Expanding work force housing is a topic on which all of the officials seem to agree.

Last week, a Westminster conference also focused on the topic, highlighting work force housing regulations in Frederick and Montgomery counties that could be applied to future subdivisions built in Carroll.

In Frederick County, more than 10 percent of any new subdivision with more than 25 units must be affordable housing, based on the county's median household income, said Scott E. Graf, a comprehensive planner in Carroll.

Montgomery and Howard counties have similar ordinances. Carroll has no such measure in place.

Efforts to revise the county's comprehensive Pathways plan and alter property zoning over the next year have given the affordable-housing movement more impetus.

"We don't provide enough opportunities for that level of development here," said Steven C. Horn, the county's director of planning. "If we're really going to have some effect on this issue, we need to create the kind of density zones for these things to occur."

As Westminster considers annexing county land for residential development, rezoning the property to incorporate more units per acre will be a goal, said Westminster Mayor Thomas K. Ferguson.

"The last frontier" for such development in Westminster could be on a 400-acre to 500-acre parcel of land near Cranberry Station Elementary School off Center Street, Ferguson told the commissioners. That area adjoins the 45-acre Mills property, which the Westminster City Council is considering annexing.

The Mills property is now mostly zoned conservation and falls outside of Westminster water and sewer connections. Under conservation zoning, maybe one house could be put on every 3 acres, Ferguson said.

Building more compact, less-expensive housing and clustering growth around existing towns can help reduce sprawl, officials said.

"We can't just continue to grow out, we've got to grow up, too, to provide that density," Westminster Councilman L. Gregory Pecoraro said. "That's what cities are."

In terms of low-income housing, what primarily exists in the county is focused on senior citizens.

In September, Residences at the Hampstead School opened, providing affordable rentals for more than 100 residents.

In the process, the project renovated and preserved the historic school site, which had been vacant and in disrepair for 15 years.

"It puts back into productive use a building held in high regard by the town," said Hampstead Mayor Haven N. Shoemaker Jr. "People who went to school there are living there now."

With county and municipal employees commuting to Carroll from surrounding counties in Maryland and Pennsylvania, county officials said more housing should be constructed for younger workers and their families here.

"One tends to think of nurses, firemen, policemen, but there's a bigger group out there, maintenance staff and nursing assistants," said Neil Ridgely, the county's planning policy coordinator who is spearheading work force housing efforts.

Younger teachers will want to move to the county in coming years, with more than a third of Carroll County public schools' employees at or near retirement age, officials said.

New developments for middle-class families will require adequate facilities, such as schools and new water resources, Ridgely said. But revamped water restrictions from the Maryland Department of the Environment could provide an obstacle when trying to cluster growth around municipalities.

"It's making it difficult for towns to develop," Shoemaker said. "It seems to encourage sprawl, for people to develop outlying areas not subject to restrictions from MDE."

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