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Jay Young

Planning for Growth Is a "No Brainer"!

Harford Business Ledger: January 2005

For those of us involved in the real estate industry, these are exciting times, but these are also scary times. Low interest rates have fueled a national boom in real estate sales which have caused values to soar. For those owners, developers and builders involved in the early stages of the boom, the profits have been unprecedented. For those entering the market now or for those reinvesting earlier profits as the market increases, the future is clearly less certain. Everyone continually refers to the real estate market "bubble" and the fear the bubble may pop. Those real estate professionals involved in compiling data and tracking trends are bullish on the future, citing demographics which indicate continually increasing demands for the foreseeable future. Others point out that the real estate market is just that -- a market. Markets rise and fall and this market has risen so high that a fall must be in the forecast. As always, the burning question is: when? Adding to the turmoil are unexpected legislative acts like moratoria which are usually a surprise. Markets don't like surprises.

In Harford County this issue of supply and demand is being hotly debated. The upcoming Comprehensive Rezoning will be perhaps the single greatest influence on the supply side of the equation for the next decade. The Comprehensive Rezoning is a process which is legislatively mandated to occur every eight years. The process consists of an analysis by the Department of Planning and Zoning of all of the land uses throughout the County. Planners analyze past and future trends and adapt land use maps to accommodate those trends and also to accommodate administration policies for growth. Realistically, growth of some kind will occur and the goal is to plan the location of that growth so that infrastructure such as water, sewer, road networks and open space can be planned and coordinated in growth areas.

The process occurs in two steps. The first step is the Master Land Use Plan where general trends of land use are identified and categorized in broad terms such as low intensity, medium intensity or high intensity, town centers, rural villages, etc. The second step is the Comprehensive Rezoning process where owners of particular parcels of land can request that their properties be rezoned. In the 1996 Comprehensive Rezoning approximately 400 property owners requested a rezoning. Of the 400 requests, approximately 100 received some type of zoning change -- not necessarily all of the land requested and not necessarily the density requested.

Right now the County is in the middle of that process. The Master Land Use Plan has been adopted. Applications for comprehensive rezoning began to be accepted on December 1, 2004 and applications will be accepted through January 31, 2005. If the Master Land Use Plan is any barometer, it appears that the County Council will be less likely to be as generous with granting rezoning requests as they were in the last Comprehensive Rezoning process. For example, the 1996 Master Land Use Plan significantly expanded rural residential infill areas. The 2004 Plan accommodated no expansion whatsoever of the rural residential infill areas.

My personal view on all of this is that demand is strong and will remain strong and, therefore, growth will occur. The County should plan an area for that growth to occur and provide the infrastructure for the growth in a planned fashion, with adequate open space, recreation space, utilities and road network. If the County does not plan for that growth, then if it occurs, it will occur in an unplanned fashion in the rural areas which the County has expended great sums to preserve through the Agricultural Land Preservation Program. And without that planning, facilities for recreation, open space, utilities and road networks will not be sufficient.

To me it's a "No Brainer." If growth is planned and it doesn't occur, the harm is nowhere near as devastating as if you don't plan for growth and it occurs anyway. It will be interesting to watch the actions of the County Administration and the County Council in the upcoming Comprehensive Rezoning to see how these issues are addressed. Whatever the action, the impact will be significant. As I said at the outset, that's why these are exciting times and scary times for all involved in the real estate industry. Stay tuned.

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