- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2003

WESTMINSTER, Md. (AP) — The Carroll County commissioners have imposed freezes on significant portions of residential and commercial development in the county, the Baltimore area’s fastest growing.

The measures are the most stringent growth controls applied in Carroll County in the past five years.

Commissioners, in two unanimous votes Thursday, delayed building on about 1,700 lots that have passed early stages of review.

“I’m loath to get government between business and the consumer, but we’re in a position where we have to do something, and we have to do something strong,” said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.

Developers had expected the commissioners to approve measures that would not have halted projects moving toward gaining approval. One said the votes seemed like an act of war on them and on landowners who have submitted subdivision proposals in good faith.

“I’m just astounded that the county doesn’t believe it needs to honor its contracts,” said Dick Hull, a longtime Westminster developer. “It was a shock. … I’d be equally shocked if landowners don’t go to the courts to uphold their contracts.”

The first measure will halt for a year all new subdivision plans that are covered by the county’s adequate-facilities laws, which are designed to prevent residential growth from overwhelming schools, roads and the water supply.

The freeze will not apply to developments of three or fewer lots, developments in the county’s towns or developments that have been approved by the county Planning Commission. But it will halt plans that are at earlier stages in the county’s review process.

The other measure will halt for nine months most commercial development on land zoned for industrial use. Industrial zoning allows more than 70 conditional land uses, and commercial developers have capitalized on those conditions to build large stores and strip malls on properties intended for heavier industry.

County staff members say the freezes, which go into effect Tuesday, will give them time to work on more permanent growth controls without creating a simultaneous rush of development.

“If we don’t act, we could continue to see the acceleration of development,” Steve Horn, the county’s planning director, told the commissioners before yesterday’s votes. “It will continue to strain our ability to close the gap between the services required and the services being demanded.”

Carroll’s population, about 160,000, grew by 2.8 percent from July 2001 to last July, a higher rate than in any other county in the Baltimore area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Commissioners debated for more than an hour Thursday, taking long, tense pauses and ricocheting from one proposal to another in search of a compromise that would satisfy the scores of landowners who criticized the freeze at hearings and in letters. At one point, they appeared ready to approve a watered-down version.

But they ended up taking the hard line, saying they are concerned about county services.

“Public safety is what we’re all here for, and we’re looking at a situation where we don’t have the water and don’t have the manpower to provide services,” Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr said.

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said such concerns have taken a back seat to developers’ wishes for too long.

“For them, it’s a dollar in the pocket, and then they walk away from the project and it’s somebody else’s problem,” she said.

Developers argue that existing laws are working, pushing growth into Carroll’s eight municipalities while preventing it from overwhelming services. They say the freezes are unnecessarily drastic and will drive up housing prices in the county by choking the real estate market.

Land-use lawyers have said lawsuits are likely because the freeze affects scores of property owners who have contracts saying their subdivisions will not strain schools, roads, or water and sewer services.

Such contracts are hard to break unless there are demonstrable emergencies , said Westminster land-use lawyer Clark Shaffer.

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