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Md. lawmaker wants developer campaign cash curbed in Howard Co.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball. (File Photo)

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball. (File Photo)

A Maryland lawmaker intends to keep pushing legislation intended to ease development pressure on Howard County by restricting builders’ ability to dole out campaign contributions.

Del. Warren Miller, a Republican, said he plans to press a bill restricting developers’ ability to furnish campaign contributions to county elected officials while builders seek government approvals on matters such as zoning amendments.

“We really need to find creative ways to slow (development) down,” Miller said.

The legislation places a moratorium on developers’ providing campaign funds for 36 months before seeking a ruling on a development issue, and would require they disclose contributions of at least $500 to an elected official’s campaign account or to an associated slate of candidates. Elected officials, in case an application comes before them within three years of receiving a donation, would be required to recuse themselves from any vote or decision.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, a Democrat who spoke at a Greater Baltimore Committee “Newsmaker Breakfast” Wednesday morning, said after the meeting that he wasn’t familiar with Miller’s proposal but generally supports restricting campaign financing. Ball said he worked hard to pass a reform bill as a council member, which wasn’t advanced until he was county executive.

“I definitely understand people’s concerns about undue access and undue influence, and I think there should be transparency, and that elected officials should represent their constituency in the best interest of their county,” Ball said, adding that it’s up to the county delegation to decide whether restrictions should be narrowly applied to developers.

As a result of its relatively easy access to jobs in the Washington region and its well-regarded school system, Howard County has attracted significant growth over a fairly short time. The county, currently home to more than 321,000 residents, experienced a 28% increase in population between 2000 and 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

As the jurisdiction grew, particularly in the south and east, new residential building continued at a strong pace, with the only slowdown coming amid the 2008 financial crisis and recovery. In the years since, projects such as Howard Hughes Corp.’s redevelopment of downtown Columbia have added substantial amounts of office, retail and residential units to the county.

But Miller said Howard County lacks the infrastructure to support the building boom of the last several years. Unchecked development, he said, created a plethora of issues, such as road congestion.

Most prominently, he said, new residential development — which he described as “rampant” — has stressed the county’s public school facilities. He said Howard County’s projections for spending on new school buildings have skyrocketed because of overcrowding stemming from unchecked development.

Overbuilding and the resulting stress on schools has even played a role in the county’s controversial redistricting plan, Miller said. That plan has sparked an uproar in the suburban county, attracting coverage from national news outlets that focus on racial tensions involved in the battle over the redistricting proposal.

However, the pressure to build more schools is not solely the result of too much building.

Local lawmakers amended Howard County’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance in 2018. Changes included reducing capacity limits at schools, triggering a halt to residential building in a school zone. Ball backed the bill in the council and former County Executive Allan Kittleman, a Republican, approved the changes.

As a result, Howard County now expects 18 elementary school districts, six middle school districts and five high school districts to be closed to new residential development by 2022-2023. That places the county in a difficult spot because halting development in those areas is expected to cut net revenues by $152 million over the next decade.

County officials have continued searching for ways to offset development’s impact on the public school system. The Howard County Council voted unanimously last week to increase the fee charged residential developers to counteract the cost of new residents attending nearby schools by more than $6 per square foot of inhabitable space over the next three years.

But Miller, who represents northern Howard County and southern Carroll County, said he’s pursuing the bill because constituents, and local political groups such as the People’s Voice, want pervasive development stopped. Residents know that “the game’s afoot,” he said, and that  county restrictions have not slowed development so far.

“It just forces developers to move around the county (looking for new land to build on),” Miller said.

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