Home construction drops sharply, but land-use remains contentious

The Baltimore Sun

Though an annual report shows that new home construction in Howard County dropped precipitously last year, land-use issues remain a pressing concern among politicians and activists.

To be sure, complaints about land-use policy have been somewhat subdued in this period between elections. But the housing slump detailed in the annual county report hasn't completely quieted the conversation.

"We have big changes [coming] in Columbia," said Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat who represents West Columbia on the County Council. Elsewhere in the county, infill -- new building in older neighborhoods -- is another hot issue, she said.

Sigaty and council member Jen Terrasa, a King's Contrivance Democrat, sponsored a resolution that created a task force that studies ways to increase public involvement in the development process. The panel has scheduled a public hearing for 7 p.m. on April 10 in the council chambers.

In addition, a group of residents has organized to push for more substantial changes.

Land use is bound to be big again in the 2010 election, when the county's decennial revision of the General Plan should be under way. The Maryland Court of Appeals' decision earlier this month that counties are not required to adhere to their master plans has intensified interest.

Meanwhile, according to Howard County's annual Development Monitoring System Report that charted housing trends in the year ending Sept. 30, 2007, new home construction is down sharply.

The 1,201 housing units built in 2007 represent "the smallest number of homes completed since the early 1980s," county planning director Marsha S. McLaughlin wrote in the report.

The total is about 25 percent lower than the annual average over the past five years. But McLaughlin pointed out that the construction slump doesn't mean a lack of development activity.

During the same period, 1,899 residential building permits were issued, and preliminary plans were approved for 2,373 more units. Moreover, there are 9,369 units in the long-term development pipeline, though McLaughlin noted that market conditions will dictate how many homes and apartments are built -- and when.

The annual report is required under the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, adopted in 1992 to delay growth around crowded schools and intersections, and force development to conform to the General Plan. Howard has a housing allocation system that caps the total number of permits per year to about 1,850 countywide.

The report said 450 units lacking housing allocations are being delayed under the law, almost all in the U.S. 1 corridor in Elkridge.

Meanwhile, Mona Brinegar is working to organize those unhappy with the state of land use policy in the county. Brinegar, an Ellicott City resident who tried to organize independent voters during the 2006 election, held a "Land Use Summit" meeting earlier this month that drew about 70 people.

"What I'm after is better representation for voters -- everyday citizens," she said. "That's really lacking right now based on my experience."

She says developers have too much clout in the county's process and wants some serious action. Suggestions from her group include eliminating the county Planning Board, creating a separate zoning board and giving residents more ability to take decisions to referendum.

"The time for talk is over," she said. "They've had plenty of opportunity."

Terrasa said the council-authorized task force is considering several changes designed to increase public notice and participation in land-use decisions, though not the kind of drastic action Brinegar is advocating.

"I feel like they're doing all they can with the time frame allotted," Terrasa said about the task force, which is due to release a final report by May 5. The panel's goal is to make recommendations in time to give the council the chance to enact legislation before its August recess.

"We wanted there to be some real changes and we didn't want to lose momentum over the summer," she said.

William E. Erskine, a development lawyer with Reese & Carney who co-chairs the council's task force, said he attended Brinegar's meeting and invited those in attendance to participate in the panel.

"The task force is charged with being responsive to all concerns and all interests in respect to land use. Mona's group is more one-sided," Erskine said. "I'd say identifying the problems is the easy part. The problem is the solution."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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