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The race for more and more development is picking up speed.  Need proof that it is not just my imagination?  Glance at the upcoming pre-submission meetings and hearings periodically at https://data.howardcountymd.gov/Search_Plans/Search_Plans_Web.aspx.

In my opinion, as a long time resident, under current conditions the race is not a fair one. The rules, if they can be called that, greatly favor developers. Citizens are left in the dust wondering what happened?  What happened to the forests and the hillsides and the historic properties? What happened to all the things that attracted me to Howard County in the first place? What happened to the schools? How come I’m spending so much time sitting in traffic?

Residents are paying more attention, at least now and again, in an effort to slow development to allow infrastructure and facilities to catch up. They are also demanding more “breathing room” and planned open spaces rather than the scraps which are truly not buildable. Many are not accepting of the push for urbanization and are expressing it at the ballot box.

Developers are frantically racing ahead with plans in order to avoid proposed changes which they correctly foresee could

  • increase delays on their desired construction start dates
  • add to the school and other APFO fees they must pay to provide adequate public facilities for their new developments
  • decrease opportunities for maximum density/maximum profits with changes in regulations

It’s not unexpected that developers would prefer to continue the current operating conditions and profit margins in which:

  • the misinterpretation of the words “property rights” eliminates common sense best practices in favor of the all-holy maximum density.
  • HoCo developers pay significantly less than surrounding counties to cover the impact of their development yet use our school system as their major marketing tool.
  • the ambiguous development regulations permit them to ultimately do whatever they’d like despite the negative impact on the environment and residents’ quality of life.
  • Developers and their attorneys can recite their practiced mantra that it’s ALL LEGAL as written (the extreme density, the incompatibility with existing neighborhoods, the lack of truly effective storm water management, etc.) –because most of our codes were written by the developer’s attorneys in the first place.

Change is a comin’.  What are the PENDING changes that COULD help make the race a little more fair?

New thresholds on school overcrowding

  • Developers know they can be delayed up to three years if elementary or middle schools are overcrowded— currently defined as at 115% of capacity. But under the new APFO law the thresholds for delay will soon be 105% of capacity for elementary schools, 110% for middle schools, and new to the mix-115% of capacity for High Schools, HSs had previously not been considered at all. But with some HSs currently exceeding 147% and new HSs costing approximately $90 million to build, it is clear this MUST change.

Increases in school impact fees (and other APFO fees) developers must pay to provide adequate public facilities for their new developments

  • Unfortunately some have put forth that our State Legislators must authorize any increase in fees which HoCo charges, although others argue that we have the right to do so as a charter county. The former thought prevails and regrettably two legislative sessions has passed with NO relief! Whether you believe that “the third time is the charm” or not, you should attend the Legislative hearing this evening (Monday, Nov. 26) to express your opinion on the proposed bill to do so.***See details at the end .

Howard County DPZ is beginning the HoCode Rewrite, a process to modernize and unify the County’s development regulations under a single, comprehensive Unified Development Code that will make the regulations simpler for residents and stakeholders to understand and use.

  • Citizens will need to take an active part throughout the process to assure that developer campaign contributions don’t skew the results. Environmentalists and activists in neighboring Prince George’s County appear unhappy with the results of their code changes under the direction of Clarion Associates, the same contractor producing HoCo’s.

But why is the race to the finish line so intense right now? Numerous possible explanations come to mind:

  • The trifecta of changes listed above, possibly converging within the next 2 years, creates additional uncertainty and unpredictability for ever-declining available land in the state’s second smallest jurisdiction.
  • The new County Executive elect ran on a platform heavily prioritizing our schools and the environment and correcting issues contributing to Ellicott City flooding. If he is true to his word, those priorities could make development a slower, more thoughtful process—one that proactively preserves Targeted Ecological Areas and that recognizes that over-development and development without comprehensive planning is a threat to us all.
  • There is a totally inexperienced County Council assuming their positions next week, perhaps making it easier to ‘confront or confuse’. (Though I’m inclined to think we have a couple of tough cookies on the new Council who won’t be content with responses from DPZ staff like, “That’s how we’ve always done it.”) You go girls!

Developers know the public has been distracted by the election and the start of the holiday season. Citizens are less likely to attend Pre-submission meetings on new developments, new capital projects, local area plans and DRRAs, speeding them through the process. I hope to find time to share specific examples in a future blog.

***But for the moment, let’s revisit tonight’s all important hearing held by our HoCo state senators and delegates.

Here is a link to the actual proposed legislation on increasing school impact fees:  https://www.howardcountymd.gov/LinkClick.aspxfileticket=yJYqPwm3_zA%3d&tabid=2120&portalid=0

Here is a link to the citizen group which has been shepherding improvements to APFO along:

https://hocoapfo.blogspot.com/2018/11/howard-county-school-facilities.html?fbclid=IwAR2UmfvfAjVZ9x9DN1b77TFdoMy6xA_RuwJ1A3aE5LcY-8EJK3RwF-ln2AM

In order to speak at the meeting you must sign up in person between 7:00 and 7:20 pm outside the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building, 3430 Court House Drive, Ellicott City.  The meeting will begin at 7:30. Citizens will have just 3 minutes to address any and all proposed bills on the agenda, which includes one on redistricting (although no details are as yet available at the time of my writing).

I hope that you –and our newly elected county officials will be in attendance. I will NOT want to see you at HoCo budget hearings in the future asking for miscellaneous community-specific or activity-specific amenities if you cannot make the effort to show up for the opportunity to INCREASE developer charges for adequate facilities. If developers are charged their fair, market based share, then requests could be budgeted for without the need to increase property taxes!

Prepare for the hearing now—and meet me on the high road,

Susan