The same economic slowdown that is worrying most state and local government officials is viewed as a blessing in disguise by Howard County planners struggling to contain the community's rampant growth.
They say the downturn gives them breathing room, and a chance to better prepare for the next building binge, a binge they think is inevitable.
The timing of the downturn coincides with debate in the county this week over legislation that would tie the pace of future development to the presence of adequate roads and schools. County officials expect to follow up that legislation with proposals to rezone large portions of the county to better direct growth.
"This might be the best time for us to implement some of these measures, when the pressure from development is not so severe," said county Planning Director Uri P. Avin.
Planning and transportation experts throughout the Washington area agree that the real estate slowdown offers local and state governments one of the best opportunities in more than a decade to tackle growth problems that have bedeviled lawmakers and upset residents. "Hopefully this time we won't make the same mistakes we've made in the past," said Montgomery County Transportation Director Robert McGarry. "We had a recession in the early 1980s and the county canceled road projects because it thought development would no longer occur."
Local and state officials are hoping they can find enough money to deal with the road congestion and crowded schools produced by the building boom of the 1980s. But they acknowledge it will not be easy.
One of the facts of economic life is that the conditions that slow development also slow tax revenue, the money local and state governments need to pay for improvements.
Maryland State Highway Administrator Hal Kassof said that without an increase in the state's gasoline tax -- the chief source of highway revenue -- Maryland will be unable to take on any new road projects after 1996.
"The best we will be able to do is take care of old projects," Kassof said. "We will be right back where we were in 1980," when the highway department had little money for improvements.
Raising taxes is expected to become increasingly difficult in the months ahead. Taxpayer revolts throughout the region have made lawmakers skittish about proposing increases.
Finding money to build new roads and schools "is the multibillion-dollar question for every state," said John DeGrove, a Florida-based growth policy expert.
"But for growth management to work you have to pay as you go, pay as you grow," he added.
DeGrove is credited as the architect of a Florida law that requires communities to approve development only if adequate roads and other public facilities are in place. He said similar laws on the books in Montgomery, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties should help the Maryland suburbs prepare for the future, especially since those laws have been tightened since the last economic slowdown.
But he warned that local growth ordinances are less effective than state laws. Without uniform regulation, growth will likely continue its outward sprawl, straining the resources of counties unprepared for growth and increasing traffic through the inner suburbs.
With that in mind, Maryland planners have begun studying regional approaches to growth management. And it is one of the driving forces behind Howard County's attempt to adopt an adequate public facilities ordinance of its own.
Developers have been attracted to Howard because of its strategic location between Washington and Baltimore and its relative laxity with respect to growth management laws. The resulting building boom left 62 percent of the county's schools with enrollments above capacity last fall and 15 percent of its roads congested beyond tolerable levels.
While Howard County developers and civic activists seem to agree that an adequate public facilities ordinance is needed, both sides have complained that County Executive Elizabeth Bobo (D) is trying to push the measure through the County Council too quickly.
The county's development community, for the most part, is concerned that the law could force it to shoulder an unfair share of the burden of providing public amenities, exacerbating financial troubles already brought on by the slowdown. Local civic activists, however, want assurances that the law will regulate development to their satisfaction.
Howard planners said the law will not relieve the county's obligation to pay for school construction and other public amenities. And, they said, an adequate public facilities law alone cannot bring growth under control. "It is just one tool at our disposal," Avin said.