Residents say changes to Howard County’s ‘outdated’ growth policy don’t go far enough
At the direction of an advisory group convened for the first time in nearly 14 years, Howard County will consider updating an ordinance that manages development as the fast-growing suburban county outpaces statewide population growth.
The measure, the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, attempts to ensure roads, sewers and schools can handle pressure from new development by stalling, but not halting, projects.
The Howard County Council will review the ordinance this year based on the Department of Planning and Zoning’s recommendations, outlined in a Feb. 2 report. The policy has been tweaked since a committee reviewed the ordinance in 2002.
Critics worry the ordinance has outlived its use and lacks the teeth to ensure development matches public facilities. The latest recommendations do little to address the development law’s basic flaws, residents said Thursday at a planning board meeting.
“It’s actually embarrassing for the sixth-wealthiest county in the country,” said Lisa Soto, a third-generation Ellicott City resident. “We’re in crisis mode.”
Since the last major review of the policy by a task force in 2002, the county’s population experienced rapid growth. Growth in the 1980s and 1990s — nearly triple the statewide average — tapered off in the 2000s, but the county’s population growth of 9.5 percent in the last 15 years is still more than double the statewide average of 4.2 percent. Residential building has stabilized since 2001, with about 1,800 residential units built in the county over the last five years.
At the direction of Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, in June 2015 a 22-member advisory group began the long and unwieldy task of pitching changes to the policy. After 22 meetings and considering 80 motions over 10 months, the group suggested 18 changes to the policy in an April report last year.
The group’s work was stalled by low attendance and negotiation, said Lisa Markovitz, a member of the group and president of the People’s Voice, an advocacy organization.
“We could not get anything done without a compromise,” she said.
Kittleman requested the county’s planning board open the floor to public testimony Thursday to allow for public input.
Some, like Kathryn Coleman, an Ellicott City resident, lamented the public’s limited awareness about changes to the policy. .
Coleman, a mother of fourth-grade and sixth-grade students in Howard County public schools, said she and others “rushed to prepare testimony” and was “extremely disappointed and dismayed” about the process so far.
“You need to hear our frustration that this is not nearly going far enough,” said Judy George, a North Laurel resident.
Restricting development in areas where schools are overcrowded dominated the discussion at Thursday’s planning board meeting .
A new regulation would hold up new construction for up to four years in areas where elementary and middle schools are 10 percent over capacity instead of the current 15 percent threshold.
But, in a bargain between developers and residents, the change would only proceed if developers can pay more fees to continue development in overcrowded areas.
Developers would be able to continue to build in areas where schools are up to 20 percent above capacity by paying double or triple the school surcharge rate of around $1 per square foot of new development.
“It’s kind of a win-win,” said Jeff Bronow, head of the Department of Planning and Zoning’s research division.
Levying additional school excise taxes, first allowed by the state for Howard specifically in 2004, requires the General Assembly’s approval. The Kittleman administration has begun early discussion with the local delegation about introducing state legislation to raise school surcharge rates.
The next high school, slated for 2023, could cost the county up to $139 million, compared to the $46.1 million price tag for Marriotts Ridge High School, which was built in 2009, according to a county report.
Others questioned why developers can proceed with projects after waiting for four years in areas where schools are overcrowded. The waiting period gives the county and the school system time to plan, redistrict and build schools, according to county officials.
“A second-grader only has one shot at second grade,” said Tudy Adler, a planning board member.
Holly DeFrancis, an Ellicott City resident, said she was shocked the policy had “limited substantive recommendations.”
“We need a total overhaul of how we’re evaluating school adequacy,” DeFrancis said.
In the last 20 years, the county’s student population has grown by 44 percent. Since 1995, 21 schools have been built, but several county schools exceed 110 percent of their capacity, with most concentrated in the northern and southeastern parts of the county.
New growth partially causes school overcrowding, according to county data.
About 44 percent of expected student enrollment increases between 2016 and 2026 come from new construction, while 58 percent of the increases come from resales and turnover of existing housing.
Others called on the county to expand the ordinance from roads, sewers and schools to stringently cover fire and rescue services, waterways and emergency services.
Acknowledging the county’s efforts so far, Stu Kohn, a task force member and president of the Howard County Citizens Association, lamented that the ordinance does little to address “quality of life issues.”
“We cannot afford to do business as usual,” Kohn said.
Another change would require developers to complete traffic mitigation projects before or close to when the development is built-out.
In some cases, roads aren’t ready to manage the new development, Bronow said.
The ordinance would also tweak how the county distributes housing units.
Each year, local lawmakers approve a chart that allocates housing units in the county’s five planning areas. Last year’s chart, which reflects allocations three years into the future, allocates 2,300 units for 2019.
A change would remove a tool that allows the county to dip into a shared pool for allocations in two areas designated for “established communities” and “growth and revitalization.” To offset the changes, the new policy would also decrease allocations in areas slated for targeted growth and increase allocations for established communities by 200 units each.
Sharing has made the two areas “meaningless,” according to the county’s report.
The county also plans to exempt affordable housing through the county’s Moderate Income Housing Unit program from allocations in order to encourage more affordable housing to be built.