Must Anne Arundel Grow? Part III
by William N. Papian

This spring, acknowledging that some growth is inevitable, I've asked you to consider with me how growth can be managed. One reason for controlling growth is that residential development does not pay for itself; the costs for infrastructure and services outweigh the new revenues in the long run, thus burdening all the county taxpayers.

But present regulations have allowed excessive growth, in part by unnecessary grandfathering of subdivisions. Our zoning regulations need to be overhauled.

Today I give another example of weakness in the regulations, one that allows unneeded increases in overall housing densities. There is a very useful residential-land-use approach called clustering, whereby open space may be gained by placing dwellings closer together than the underlying zoning of a tract allows.

Consider, for example, the simple case of a 100-acre tract of land zoned R-1 which means, in Anne Arundel County, that the minimum-size private home lot shall be no less than 40,000 square feet. How now can one determine the maximum number of dwellings that can be constructed on this tract under its R-1 zoning?

By sketching in the usual conventional subdivision, using space as efficiently as possible. Because some of the land must be devoted to roads, utilities and so on, and because the shape of the tract probably is not a perfect rectangle with just the right dimensions, and because some of the land may not be buildable, the result will, of course, be significantly less than 100 lots; let's say about 75.

But if the houses are to be clustered, each of the 75 lots can be reduced in size to as low as 10,000 square feet. Laying out the subdivision accordingly may make about half (or more) of the tract available as open space, a result usually desired by both state and county. In addition to creating more open space, clustering opens up increased design flexibility, resulting in more attractive subdivisions than the common "cookie-cutter" type.

Since construction costs are then lower and the result more attractive, the developer may also prefer it. Some counties value open space so highly that they have passed zoning laws mandating clustering. Our state of Maryland values open space so highly that it recently passed a bill called the Open Space Initiative, aimed at encouraging clustering on a grander scale than individual subdivisions.

Again, there are complications. Anne Arundel's zoning code states that "the density of a cluster development shall be determined by the number of dwelling units permitted in the zoning district in which the development is located."

That and similar statements in the code imply that the limit on the number of lots in a clustered subdivision should not exceed the number that can be laid out in a conventional subdivision. Unfortunately, the code language about clustering is loose enough to allow other interpretations that yield overall densities higher than the underlying zoning specifies.

The result: clustering has been used to increase densities in many cases.

This has been accomplished by allowing unbuildable land, wetlands for example, to be counted as buildable land in the overall density calculations and by skipping the conventional-layout step during the permit process.

The policy issue is quite clear: Does this county wish to use clustering to "gain" open space at the expense of higher overall densities?

Surely that is what is intended neither by the state's Open Space Initiative nor by the county's present regulations, nor by the recently adopted General Development Plan.

The language in Article 26 must be changed to remove this loophole. For clustering, a conventional layout must be required during the sketch-plan phase of the permit process, not merely suggested. Proper legislation can easily clear out this particular loophole.

Then, clustering under the right circumstances should probably be mandated.

Part 4, the concluding article on this subject, will appear in a future edition.


-Bill Papian is president of the Shady Side Peninsula Association Inc., Box 114, 20764.

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Volume VI Number 24
June 18-24, 1998
New Bay Times

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