St. Mary's Eyeing 2.25-Percent Limit on Housing Growth; Resources Crippled by BRAC

Growth in St. Mary's County, that is a direct result of Navy's BRAC relocations to PAXRVR, has crippled local schools and threatens the Rural Preservation District. This situation begs to ask, "Did anyone do any advance planning or analysis?"

By Adam Ross, The County Times

LEONARDTOWN, Md. - St. Mary’s County is growing beyond its control, hampering schools with overcrowding and forcing development into the Rural Preservation District (RPD).

To restructure the county into town centers, and move growth away from the RPD, a housing cap needs to be established, a topic the Adequate Public Facilities Task Force (APF) studied and presented to county government.

Around 3,575 dwelling units are in line today, waiting for approval to be constructed. With that type of influx into the development district, school seats, already a hot commodity, would quickly dwindle because of rules that hold seats for approved developments. In some cases, those developments are not built for more than a decade.

Meanwhile, under the current Adequate Public Facilities (APF) ordinances, described as “chaotic” by APF Task Force member Ford L. Dean, all construction in the development district has been shut down because of the overcrowded schools.

As this pressure builds, developers alleviate it by moving into the RPD, which compromises the rural character of the county and the gracious intent of the land.

The Planning Commission has held two working meetings in January to discuss the task force’s recommendations, and to devise its own for the Board of County Commissioners.

In the latest sit-down, Jan. 31, the Planning Commission settled on a phased 2.25 percent cap, which they feel should fairly distribute approval for dwelling units waiting in the queue.

“We have to use some sense of developer fairness,” said Denis Canavan, director of Land Use and Growth Management on the implementation of phasing. “You’re not going to get all of your units you want.”

Canavan and the Planning Commission agreed that it’s harder on the queue, and on the developer when an approval for a large number of lots is given, but a majority of those units are held back for financing or common construction delays.

“I can realistically say, a developer looking to build 50 to 200 units in a year is not going to be able to do so,” Canavan added.

If a problem arises, the queue establishes a priority rating so a developer is not banished from the list, just moved back, Canavan said.

Lots of five or more dwelling units, as well as minor subdivisions, would be included in the que, according to Canavan. However, family conveyances could still seek approval from the commission without waiting in line.

Of the 3,750 units currently waiting, 804 would be approved for build out yearly under the 2.25 percent cap.

Planning Commission member Shelby P. Guazzo said 2.25 percent was too high, and recommended the commission consider two percent instead.

“There is a softening housing market and decreasing household sizes, but we have a lot of housing already,” Guazzo said. “Everybody who moves in here doesn’t want a new house... Also, historically it’s easier to raise the number the next year than to lower it.”

The difference between 2.25 and two percent would be 89 houses each year.

Member Brandon Hayden and chairman Steve Reeves countered Guazzo with the ideas of “handcuffing the market” too much, and keeping the market “strong by over building a little.”

The cap will be revisited annually, and according to Reeves the commission “can always tighten the screws.”

The other recommendation the commission tackled was the suitable housing allocation for growth areas versus non-growth areas. The Planning Commission voted 3-to-2 in favor of a 60-40 split.

Reeves said he preferred a 70-30 split so that the developers of minor subdivisions do not have more of an opportunity to “piecemeal together” plans for their acreage.

“I’m concerned with the land use pattern we are encouraging people to do,” Reeves said. “I’m looking to see how it works for a while. I think the minor subdivisions are going to have less roads and less improvements.”

Guazzo also agreed the 70-30 split would be better for the growth of the RPD.

The Planning Commission will meet for its third working meeting later this week, and discuss the APF’s other recommendations, Reeves said.

“The school board is going to come back and give some information because the last issue had to do with percentages of the APF in regards to the state,” Reeves said. “We base our school APF on percentages from the state funding requirements.”

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