Charles County commissioners' proposal to ban small houses from being built in much of the county unfairly restricts consumer choice, speakers said at a public hearing last week.
Such a policy could even be illegal because it would discriminate against those with lesser incomes, a building industry representative told the Planning Commission. The nearly unanimous criticism of the proposal from witnesses at the hearing may indicate that support for the commissioners' idea is waning.
The panel took no immediate action following Monday's hearing, and members said they likely would vote on the small-houses proposal in January. Its vote is advisory; the elected commissioners, who already voted to send the proposal to the Planning Commission, will cast a final, deciding vote.
The measure would ban the construction of houses with less than 1,650 square feet of living space in areas served by water and sewer lines. That includes the development district, the northern fifth of the county designated to receive most of the new housing that places Charles County among the state's fastest-growing jurisdictions.
Small houses still could be built in most rural areas, by nonprofit groups working to provide low-cost housing, and for seniors.
Commissioners said they want to head off a possible rush in construction of small single-family houses by builders thwarted by new regulations that have cut by more than 90 percent the number of applications to build town houses in the county.
Robert Heier, Charles County vice president for the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association, a trade group, told the Planning Commission there is no evidence of such a rush.
The average size of detached single-family houses built in Charles County over the past two years is 2,270 square feet, with an average sales price of $198,683, according to an analysis by the supervisor of real estate assessments for Charles County, who is a state employee.
Heier noted that the county's housing policy goals include a mix of housing for different income levels. He said young people, newlyweds, minorities, teachers and sheriff's deputies all could have a harder time affording housing if the minimum size proposal succeeds.
"This amendment . . . states loudly and clearly that you must have a certain level of family income in order to live in Charles County," Heier said. "This is socioeconomic discrimination, and discrimination in housing is illegal in the United States."
State Del. Van T. Mitchell (D-Charles County) also spoke before the Planning Commission, but said he was doing so in his capacity as a private citizen. His family business sells building supplies.
"I'm totally opposed" to the measures being considered, Mitchell said.
He said if commissioners are concerned that too much housing adds to school crowding and crime, they should move directly to reduce the permitted density, or the number of houses that may be built on each acre.
More housing restrictions after last year's moratorium on town house building could mar the county's business reputation, Mitchell said.
Dana Jones, executive director of the Southern Maryland Tri-County Community Action Committee, said a family would need a yearly income of roughly $60,000 to afford the least expensive new home that could be built if the measure succeeds.
"Are we going to economically segregate society?" Jones asked.
Swynice Hawkins, a former president of the county chapter of the NAACP, told the Planning Commission that small houses fill a need.
"People need a place to start, to call a home of their own," Hawkins said. "Not everyone in Charles County is affluent [with] a $50,000-plus income and $10,000 in savings."