From the Baltimore Sun
A county in conflict
Divergence of public will, public policy seen as Howard’s single largest problem
By Gerald P. Merrell
February 18, 2007
John Liparini walked in from a snow flurry at 7:30 p.m., armed with facts and figures in support of two modest developments in Elkridge to aid moderate-income families. Less than 90 minutes later, he bowed to unrelenting opposition from residents and scrapped both projects, at least temporarily.
That experience encapsulates a broader issue for the county: The divergence between public policy and public will.
The conflict, some say, may be the county’s single largest problem because it pervades discussions on many of the most critical issues.
“I think it is true that there is a conflict between what the general public wants and what the politicians want or the government believes should happen,” says Katherine L. Taylor, an attorney who has represented residents opposed to development. “Unless the public policy is one to benefit the people who are directly affected by the land-use changes, I think there will always be that conflict.”
William E. Erskine, a partner with the law firm Reese & Carney, LLP, whose clients include several developers, says, “It’s a very delicate balancing act that public officials have, because there are competing interests.” The divergence, he says, threatens efforts to ensure responsible growth. “The whole concept of Smart Growth, which is to direct your development and residential growth in areas that can accommodate it, is being resisted by the people where it would take place,” Erskine says.
The conflict is not limited to where to place low- and moderate-income housing.
It is seen on many levels: Growth in the broadest sense, density, in-fill development and the future of downtown Columbia.
“It’s a challenge,” says Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning. “The county is a wonderful place to be, and we have a great quality of life. … But there is a very limited amount of land. One option is to sprawl all over western Howard County, but we’re trying not to do that.”
McLaughlin says a “larger public dialogue” might be beneficial to shape development policy.
“Clearly, it becomes increasingly painful waging battles on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis,” she says. “We will grow. We just have to have an understanding of where we want to grow.”
The timing could be right for such deliberations, McLaughlin says, because the county is not engaged in comprehensive rezoning, when tempers often flare and the focus is on specific properties and not broad policy questions.
Taylor faults elected officials with too often fashioning policy with no thought of public response to implementation.
“The error that politicians make, and the developers as well, is not stepping into the shoes of the people who live there and saying, ‘What would we want here? What would we expect?’ ” Taylor says. “The big problem is that the people who are affected have no input or no choice. The only way they have input is to be protestants — opposing something.”
That has been especially evident in the efforts to provide housing for moderate- and low-income families.
While the need for those units is rarely disputed, that has not translated into acceptance for specific developments in many cases.
Indeed, the problem was underscored recently when a report to County Executive Ken Ulman noted that providing affordable housing “is one that the community supports in principle, but often opposes in implementation.”
Liparini, president and chief executive officer of Brantly Development Group, recently encountered that incongruity at a community meeting when he proposed building 20 duplex units on 7.22 acres, and eight duplexes on 1.5 acres in Elkridge. Both parcels are zoned R-12, for single-family residential lots of 12,000 square feet.
The structures, Liparini promised, would be designed to appear as single-family homes to blend in with the neighborhood and be affordable to more people by costing an estimated $250,000 to $300,000.
His son, Nick, an executive with the firm, told an audience of Elkridge residents that changing demographics require different types of housing units and that, particularly in Howard County, in-fill development, not sprawling subdivisions, will represent much of the new-home construction.
Those points have been made repeatedly by county officials.
But the audience, estimated at 100 and made up largely of Elkridge residents, adamantly objected to the duplex projects.
County officials sometimes find themselves at odds with the very policies they assert to support.
The Elkridge residents found support in County Council member Courtney Watson, who declared, “Some people will say this is exactly what is needed to increase our stock of affordable housing,” but “two-family dwellings is not compatible with Elkridge.”
And a proposal for an apartment complex in Font Hill for moderate-income earners was opposed by Ulman and Watson, both of whom say the project would be incompatible with the neighborhood. The development was ultimately killed.
“Current neighbors and current residents are very important stakeholders,” Erskine says. “We have an obligation to them and to our children. What’s the plan and where are they going to live?”
But he says words like compatibility, density and neighborhood character often reflect “the NIMBY affect.”
That’s an acronym for Not In My Backyard.
“Everyone can agree that we should have moderate-income housing,” Erskine says. “But not next to us.”
Taylor says, “In some respects, I think people get too caught up in saying that everything has to look the same.” But she says compatibility is not an illegitimate consideration.
“Perhaps there should be a regulation to require certain restrictions — that in-fill developments within existing neighborhoods somewhat conform in size and architecture,” she says. “The problem is, how do you define it?”
Erskine believes the conflict is just beginning: “I think we’re absolutely going to see more of this as we run out of space, as areas that have not been economical for development now are quite viable. Those pressures are going to continue and intensify.”
McLaughlin acknowledges there is a critical need for affordable housing and sees more in-fill development. But, she says, “They have to be a good neighbor.”
Copyright © 2007, The Baltimore Sun