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Housing Growth, Not Smart Growth, Not Progressive Planning

April 20, 2006

by Jack Lynch

There comes a point in every public hearing when the weight of the discussion has reached a logical conclusion, sometimes that means that two strong sides cannot be reconciled, but more often, it comes that a consensus of opinion has grown, as it did in Winchester Hall on a recent Tuesday evening, and the right speaker hits just the right note to rouse the room to applause.

“How can we renovate our schools if we keep building more houses?” was asked.  And the room burst into applause.  Clearly, concerns over schools are one hot button for the coming election.  It has the constituency to spark a revolt over the failed growth wisdom of the times.

It is the central debate of the coming election.

For every new home places an increased demand on an already overburdened and lengthy public funding process for county schools, both new and improved.  ‘Growth is good’ is a myth that holds the reins of too many bandwagons.  Cut out the mere profiteers of growth in homes, and balance that drive against the infrastructure and services support costs of the new residents: the picture of reality is that homes only begin to pay for themselves when the sheer mass of residential development adds a population to attract new businesses to serve their everyday needs. 

A secondary danger of these new resident homeowners is that their job commuting patterns often favor their economic focus closer to their work environs.  Detachment by proximity occurs.  A Frederick church studied the Urbana growth as a possible satellite area of parishioner support and auxiliary growth for the church community and found that those new residents not only worked in Montgomery County, but primarily shopped there, worshipped at their former haunts, and many had not even made the short trip to Frederick City to learn what their new home community offered.  They were truly a mostly bedroom community.

All the developer proffers in the world cannot mitigate the impacts of their new developments against the already outstanding school needs.  And now our pro development Board of County Commissioners has further compounded the problem by weakening the educational impact restraints of the APFO for the massive Linganore build out.

The state is not riding in on a white horse, or a dark horse on this need.  Given the concerns of public interest groups over transportation needs in the New Market regional plan, and the state’s planning division’s comments that while they see that the plan “will require substantial additional investments in public infrastructure” that they see “no over-riding State or inter-jurisdictional interest” in intervening in the plan process. (Letter from Audrey Scott, Secretary, Maryland Department of Planning, to Commissioner Thompson and the BOCC, dated 3/17/06)

Yet, in reference to the growth of 50,000 residents at Fort Meade envisioned by the national military base realignment process, Maryland Transportation Secretary Flannigan was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “You don’t want growth to occur and then to try to catch up with it.  That ties your hands.  We need to anticipate growth that we know is going to occur and plan [for it].” (4/10/06)

But the catch twenty-two scenario he paints is exactly where Frederick County already stands in terms of past growth not being supported and sustained by needed infrastructure improvements.  The local transportation CIP and the state’s annual input review, only grows a list of twenty years worth of already needed improvements.  And the Governor’s pet project, the Inter County Connector is set to drain much of those annual doles to local roads with a great sucking sound far into the future.

The citizens deserve better, and they have not been getting their votes and their money’s worth over the past four years with three hands in the air for another twenty five years of massive housing growth.

There is no excuse for it.

But do enough people really pay attention, or care?  That is uncertain.  There is a certain drumbeat for change, and we’ll see on Election Day if it is enough to mitigate the problems of three raised hands for poor planning and unabated growth. 

But it will likely be too late, as the mismanagement of the New Market regional plan will be voted on and likely approved next week or soon thereafter, and the next twenty years will worsen the quality of life in Frederick County.