After months of acrimony, most parties in Howard County's divisive growth wars seem to be working together to fashion a new law that would tightly control development in areas plagued by crowded schools and congested roads.
County officials, civic leaders and business people said they are willing to give the proposed law -- called an "adequate public facilities" ordinance -- a chance even though major questions remain about how it would work and whether it would accomplish its aims.
"While we know this is no panacea, we think there is value in attempting to coordinate residential and commercial development with road and school capacity," said T. James Truby, president of the Economic Forum of Howard County.
Truby's comments are important because the forum -- a coalition of business, housing, farming and minority groups -- loudly opposed a county move to limit the number of building permits issued for an 18-month period beginning last September. It also pushed for several changes in the county's 20-year blueprint for growth, the General Plan.
The forum's acceptance of an adequate-facilities law mirrors the comments heard on the campaign trail. Just about every candidate for county office this year has spoken out in favor of the concept, even if they don't specifically endorse the version offered by County Executive Elizabeth Bobo (D).
Bobo is expected to forward the legislation to the County Council next week for its approval, according to County Administrator Buddy W. Roogow. But first, county officials want to study the 35 comments they have received from county groups or individuals.
Bobo's bill proposes to regulate development in two ways:
First, developers would have to agree to correct any road congestion problems within two miles or two major intersections of their projects before they could start building. The proposed law would exempt Interstates 95 and 70 from the road-congestion tests but would cover their ramps.
Second, residential developers would be required to give land for schools if their projects would make nearby schools too crowded.
County civic and business groups said they have had a difficult time assessing the proposal because an important part of the legislation -- a point system used for evaluating road congestion and the changes needed to correct it -- has not yet been made public.
"Until you know what that point system is and how it will operate, you can't test projects to see if the law will work," said Joyce Kelly, president of the Howard County Citizens Association.
Kelly said she also is concerned about the power the new system would place in the hands of county planners who would sit down with developers and negotiate for road improvements and adequate school sites. She said procedures should be put in place to enable the public to hold planners accountable for those agreements.
"There ought to be some kind of public posting or logging of what's going on, so people know what is happening," Kelly said.
County residents "have not had a hard time getting involved so far," Roogow said. "I'm sure the public will have a chance to review decisions. How? I can't say right now."
County planners won't always be working alone, Roogow said. When it comes to assessing school sites, planners will seek the help of the county's school staff.
Economic Forum officials raise three concerns. They wonder if the proposed law would work against county efforts to expand affordable housing because the costs of meeting the requirements likely would be passed on to house buyers and renters.
Forum officials have asked the county to eliminate a provision that some rigorous road and school concessions be required of projects even if they have passed the preliminary plan stage of development.
"In many cases, already existing projects have expended considerable money in reliance of their projects' approval, and in many cases considerable risk has been taken by financial institutions to back these projects," Truby wrote to Bobo.
Finally, the forum said it is concerned that small builders might have more trouble than big developers in donating land for schools. Truby asked Bobo to consider allowing those builders to contribute money to a school fund instead.
Roogow said the county is studying what can be done to help small builders, but he added that "if a large number of small builders begin development in one area, it adds up to a major problem."
He also said he doubts that the ordinance would reduce affordable housing opportunities because "the policy of this administration is to do all we can to provide that housing . . . . If in fact it does have an effect on affordable housing, then we can make changes."