Council seems to lack consensus on U.S. 1 bill

The Baltimore Sun

With a vote scheduled July 7, Howard County Council members appear far shy of consensus on a bill that would speed redevelopment along U.S. 1, despite two months of discussions and public hearings.

Implications of the bill for renewed school crowding along the corridor are further complicating the issue, though the developer of the Aladdin Mobile Home Park in Jessup might be willing to donate a small parcel for a new elementary school there, said Jud Malone, a representative of the developer.

Meanwhile, disagreements about a separate land-use bill that seeks to preserve smaller development lots in older neighborhoods by allowing owners to sell their building rights for use elsewhere in the county helped stretch a council work session last week to four hours, far longer than normal.

"I think we need to digest this," said Council Chairman Courtney Watson at the end of the long Friday afternoon session.

Watson, a Democrat who represents Ellicott City and Elkridge, is worried that the county is not moving fast enough to acquire school sites and prepare for coming crowding along U.S. 1. She told school officials in a letter Friday that she wants a citizens task force convened to study new ways of financing increasingly expensive buildings.

Watson noted that because new school enrollment projections show six U.S. 1-area elementary schools sufficiently overcrowded to trigger development delays over the next eight years, the Ulman administration bill that seeks to allow up to 250 more housing allocations annually in the corridor will not help projects such as Aladdin or the Savage Maryland Rail Commuter service train station mixed-use development to move forward. Aladdin is allowed to build 206 new homes as replacements for former mobile homes before using any housing allocations.

"Passing Bill 39 doesn't do anything unless we solve our bigger problem on school-construction funding," Watson told fellow council members.

"All of this is a perfect storm for shutting down [development along] Route 1," Watson added.

Under the county's complex growth-control laws, an annual cap of 1,850 housing allocations apportioned throughout the county controls how many homes get permission to move toward construction. Once developers obtain allocations, they also must pass a school-crowding test. If the nearest elementary or middle school is predicted to be more than 15 percent over capacity, development is delayed for up to four years while the county tries to solve the problem.

County Executive Ken Ulman wants to allow builders to "borrow" up to 250 more allocations from future years to double the number of allocations available for U.S. 1 revitalization projects. Developers say they cannot get financing if they have to wait up to five years to get enough allocations to move forward.

But Watson and other council members have questions about the bill, which is opposed by Elkridge residents and by several countywide civic groups.

Watson is the sponsor of the other contested bill, which would allow owners of small, developable lots in older neighborhoods to sell their building rights to be used elsewhere in the county - a feature that has raised questions among other members worried about where the extra new homes might land. Developers who buy the rights also get a 10 percent density bonus.

"I really do understand the idea of preserving parcels. I don't understand where the receiving parcels are," said Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

"They're scattered all over the place," county Planning Director Marsha S. McLaughlin replied.

Watson argued that a 10 percent density increase would translate to just a few extra homes that builders can plan for versus unplanned homes sprouting on every vacant lot in older areas.

Developers like the idea because "they still get the development potential, but they don't get a war over three lots," McLaughlin said.

But Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, said the bill would allow "twice or three times as many [new homes] as we are taking away. This really is a density increase."

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