Howard County tightens limits on housing development

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

After months of research and debate, the Howard County Council Monday night narrowly approved updates to rules designed to ensure that development doesn’t overburden roads and schools.

The 3-2 vote brought a warning from a builders’ trade group that the new regulations will shut out development and criticism from some residents that a loophole would allow growth in already overpopulated school zones.

“This legislation is a step in the wrong direction for Howard County,” said Josh Greenfeld of the Maryland Building Industry Association. “It fails to relieve overcrowding, does not hold the school board accountable and will have significant impacts on the county’s budget and ability to perform its service.”

Democratic Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty and Republican Greg Fox voted against the update to the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.

Fox said the changes place a “moratorium” on development by lowering the county’s threshold at which to close areas to construction.

Without development and the money it brings, Sigaty said the county will struggle to pay for infrastructure improvements, such as school expansion and roads, putting an added burden on taxpayers.

“People believe that [APFO] is going to solve crowding in schools and traffic on roads, and what I don’t think they see is where the money’s going to come from for these solutions,” Sigaty said after the meeting.

The council had approved changes to the ordinance last November but the vote was declared invalid when it was determined their vote occurred a day after a legislative deadline expired.

The final version of the bill was heavily amended and includes a provision that could encourage developers to build affordable housing.

The law tightens controls on development by lowering thresholds on formulas that define when schools are considered overcrowded, triggering restrictions on housing construction.

Development won’t be allowed if elementary schools are 5 percent over capacity instead of 15 percent; middle schools have a 10 percent overcapacity limit, down 5 percent; and the update adds high schools to the test for the first time, with a 15 percent threshold.

The updated ordinance makes an exception to these caps for some proposals of affordable housing. Under the changes, a development may be built in an area otherwise closed to construction if at least 40 percent of the units are to be affordable housing. Approval of affordable housing projects will be left up to the County Council.

Under APFO, affordable housing is defined as units affordable to families earning less than 60 percent of Baltimore Metropolitan Statistical Area's median income, which in 2017 was $91,100, according to the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. A three-person family would qualify if they earn less than $49,200 a year and any housing costs under approximately $1,230 a month would be considered affordable.

Sigaty, who proposed the affordable housing clause, said that while she was pleased with its inclusion in the update, the limits APFO put on development will make the county “more exclusive” to wealthier families.

“This bill is going to have very negative effects on housing affordability in the county,” she said. “When you cap your supply, the cost goes up.”

Some residents called the affordable housing provision a “loophole” in the law.

“[Developers can] circumvent the process if they can claim affordable housing,” said Ellicott City resident Jen Spiegel, who has two children in county schools. “I hate that it preyed on people’s emotions on affordable housing. No one is against it, but kids have to have seats.”

One piece of APFO is still under consideration at the state level, a bill to raise fees for developers who wish to build in otherwise closed areas of the county. The bill, if approved, would grant the County Council the ability to impose the higher fees, which must be enabled by the state.

As proposed, the bill would double developers’ fees in areas where schools are between 110 and 115 percent of their capacity, and increase the fees by 200 percent in areas where schools are between 115 and 120 percent of capacity. Payment of these fees allows developers to surpass a mandated four-year waiting period to build in these areas.

Sigaty said the county’s future lawmakers, who will be required to review the ordinance in five years, should carefully consider the accuracy of population projections. She also said future lawmakers will need to consider new factors such as an increase in multifamily housing and transportation modes.

“I hope people understand the reality that schools only service a third of households,” she said. “APFO is driven by schools, when 70 percent of the population doesn’t have that” need for schools.

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