Charles County commissioners on Tuesday began considering tougher building requirements for single-family houses, saying they want to ensure recent town house restrictions do not provoke a surge in small, cheap homes.
Builders reacted warily to the proposals, and one commissioner said he wanted to make sure new regulations do not leave those with moderate incomes unable to afford local housing.
Commissioners discussed whether to boost the minimum house size or require the use of brick, which typically is more expensive than siding. But they did not reach any conclusions and said other measures could be considered.
Commissioners said they hope to move quickly. They asked developers not to rush to build small houses before new rules take effect. Changes would require assent by the appointed Planning Commission, and then a final vote by the elected commissioners.
Commissioners last year slapped a temporary moratorium on town house construction, saying a profusion of such homes had undermined residential property values in the county. Consultants hired by the county found that a lack of high-paying jobs was the primary reason for stagnant or falling property values.
In February commissioners voted to end the moratorium with tough new town house rules that mandated fewer units in each row, expanded the use of brick, increased the minimum home size and adopted a complicated approval process. They said the new requirements were intended to raise the quality of construction.
At the time commissioners speculated that builders whose plans were thwarted by the town house restrictions might move to build small detached homes close together. On Tuesday commissioners reiterated such concerns.
"We were concerned that with passage of standards for town houses there would be a tendency to transfer what we call rack-'em-and-stack-'em town houses to single-family" housing, said Murray D. Levy (D-At Large), president of the Board of County Commissioners. "We didn't want that to happen in Charles County."
Planning staff members told the commissioners that in the last 12 months, builders had applied to build 854 single-family detached homes. Of those, 54 were smaller than the town house regulations' minimum size of 1,650 square feet, said planning director Steve Magoon.
Commissioner Marland Deen (R-Waldorf) noted that 21 of those 54 small homes were in Brawners Estates, a development in western Charles County established as a site for affordable housing.
Deen issued what he called "a plea" for a policy "that above all allows the opportunity for housing stock to be available for people less fortunate than ourselves."
Advocates say affordable adequate housing is scarce in Charles County and Southern Maryland, with monthly rents high for a partly rural area.
But Levy noted Tuesday that numerous town homes are listed for sale at a price of $100,000 or less, and said moderately priced housing is not in short supply.
Robert A. Heier, Charles County vice president for the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association, a trade group, criticized the developing policy.
"All I can say is: Here we go again," said Heier, whose group opposed the town house moratorium.
Heier said eliminating small single-family houses would undermine a market segment that serves young couples buying their first homes, and people with moderate incomes such as teachers and police officers.
He said the county's Comprehensive Plan calls for a range of housing. "There needs to be a [housing] product for low- and moderate-income people," Heier said.