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Bill would result in plans for more workforce housing

March 04, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - Anyone looking for new digs in Washington County these days can attest to the soaring costs for housing.

Apparently, they've got plenty of company in other parts of the state.

Alarmed by the number of Maryland workers who can't afford to live where they're employed, Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore City, sponsored legislation that would require local governments to include a provision for "workforce housing" in their comprehensive plans.

McIntosh, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, presented her bill to the committee Thursday.

"I believe a lot of counties are struggling with this issue," she said. "I think it is paramount that our police, teachers and firefighters ... be able to find affordable housing in the county where they work if they wish to do so."

Several lobbyists representing public employees noted Sue Esty, legislative director for the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told the committee that teachers and emergency workers are moving out of their counties, and sometimes out of the state, to find affordable housing.

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The extra commuting, Esty said, takes time away from their families.

Last year, 992 Baltimore County teachers left the county, said Cheryl Bost, president of the county teachers association.

"It was frequently because of the cost of housing," Bost said.

She said the number of county workers residing in nearby York County, Pa., continues to rise, she said, with the unintended consequence of drowsy commuters causing a rash of traffic accidents.

Though McIntosh's bill requires workforce housing to be part of a county's comprehensive plan, it would be a guideline that wouldn't have the force of law. That's a mistake, said Gerrit Knaap, executive director of the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland and a professor of architecture.

Housing provisions should be more comprehensive than just for "workforce," he said, and "should be subject to greater scrutiny than other elements" in a comprehensive plan.

"There's only so much land in a county," noted Del. Barry Glassman, D-Harford. As the available property dwindles, land costs rise, he said.

"How do you produce more housing units while taking care of the land you need to protect? You have to forgo something," Knaap said.

While supporting the bill, Secretary of Planning Audrey E. Scott told the committee it might be premature. She said a state task force on workforce housing had been established to analyze every jurisdiction in the state.

"I don't want to undermine the effort of the task force," she said.

Making workforce housing part of local comprehensive plans, she said, was a "piecemeal approach" to the problem.

She asked McIntosh to postpone the bill for at least a year so the task force could complete its work. McIntosh said she could accept that.

Scott also conceded that only three or four Maryland counties have any kind of plan for affordable housing.

Pending legislation to revise Washington County's excise tax on new development includes - at the insistence of Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington - a requirement that the county develop a plan for affordable housing, and Commissioner James Kercheval has been working on one, but nothing has been adopted yet.

Even those who spoke against McIntosh's bill agreed with its premise.

"We decided to oppose this bill, but not easily," said Candace L. Donoho, director of government relations for the Maryland Municipal League.

The league's objection, she said, was that the bill would place a state mandate on what is supposed to be a local planning tool.

That sentiment was echoed by David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, who said the association supported "local land-use autonomy."

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