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May 19, 2005

Kudzu and Million Dollar Homes

In the South there are places that are overrun by the weed Kudzu.  It is a noxious weed that was imported from Japan.  It covers entire fields, runs up and over whole trees.  It is difficult if not impossible to destroy.

Kudzu is a lot like the endless, baseless claims and demands of Frederick County’s own very special, special interest, the builders and developers.  Fight impact fees, ask for double impact fees for consideration, change the APFO, tap into restricted water lines, on and on endlessly.

Not that I am against all growth, or especially economic development, which is much more than home building.  In fact, it may be that home building is putting the cart before the horse.

What’s missing in the debate has been a fair analysis of growth.  Past growth, current growth and future growth, even, the possibility of ultimate growth.  Places like Calvert County have figured that out, based on water supply and infrastructure support, and they found that they could build out, as densely as possible, using less land and natural resources to achieve that ultimate growth.  Frederick County needs to complete a similar study.

What’s also missing is the vital difference in what we understand about growth, community, infrastructure and progress, that we did not make ourselves aware of in the past.  That there is an interrelationship between our lives and structures and the environment, in every sense, that value can be gained by leaving a tree in place rather than paving over it or bulldozing then replacing it.  Preserved parcels of land add value, viewscapes matter in quality of life and valuation of place.  That’s why we declare scenic byways instead of simply building every road to beltway proportions.

We can’t keep building until we put a man on the moon, by elevator.  On both sides, much gaseous verbiage passes about the number of lots available to build, the number of homes planned, the value of that growth.  Frederick County has a history of shambling along without a true sense of what it is doing, and a lot of forces would like to see it stay that way, because it plays against both sides.

So it can be a good thing that we’re going to consider studying growth impacts.  And it appears that a good track has been established at the Planning Commission to establish the groundwork for such a study.

But the devil is in the dust.

There appears to be consensus to develop the study parameters by a broad based committee of varied interests.  It is sad to see Mr. Soter, acting county planning director, oppose such a process, but you must realize how these groups have played out for him in the past.  He’s been burned, and the whole process might be easier, and less uncertain, if staff could simply direct a consultants study and pay a fee for the service; and have the Board of County Commissioners accept it wholeheartedly.  They have rejected expensive advice before, or made it politically untenable to use.  They’ve also found it difficult to accept the recommendations of broad based citizen and business coalition committees, such as the Citizens Zoning Review Committee.

Mr. Brown of the Planning Commission was quoted as saying that a past study in the 1980's showed that a home value of $180,000 was needed to breakeven on tax revenue versus services and infrastructure costs.  In 2004 dollars, that would equal, calculated by the CPI index inflation value of 1990 as a basis ( Link ), and a conversion factor of .714, about $252,100 per home, 2004 dollars.

It is likely that many folks hope that the numbers work that way, given their relationship to the current average town home price of around $300,000.

But some elements of the equation are missing.  Just like the county budget, costs are rising faster than that for a number of reasons, be it ancillary costs like insurance as percentage of costs, or foreign exchange, or the increased needs for infrastructure as build outs occur farther from primary resources.


In fact, the budget director of Loudoun County did a rule of thumb analysis of that county's home value to tax neutrality, based on .8 pupil per home average, total educational costs, and other minor factors, and found that it required a $1 Million dollar home value.

There may actually be a great risk in placing hopes on the analysis of home value to service costs and tax value.  What is eagerly sought now, may become shooting one's self in the foot.

Citizens have an obligation to be vigilant to the excesses of unrestricted growth, over the more vital business development, for the job and tax supportive businesses always lag residential growth. 

In an age of instant communications and virtual work, and the government security concerns causing shifts in vision about where workers should occupy space, we need not simply see Frederick County as a commuter bedroom community.  We will grow in corporate and government business space.  If we promote it.

What we need are to build fewer bedrooms and more boardrooms.

I ask the businesses of the Land Use Council and other development interests to live up to their own professed values of the marketplace, fairness and an even playing field, and being a positive force in public life.  It appears that now, after several attempts to feed at the public trough, that they are betting on a study to build a case for their interests. 

Good luck.

The really good news is that the study will likely be done in a way that encompasses the need to fully value all aspects of growth, not just home value per tax returns.

If they are fearless of the outcome, so am I.  If the facts prove that we are too harsh in our judgment of growth's impacts, I will be the first to back down and support a rational perspective on such matters.  Given a fair evaluation study, I too am fearless of the outcome.  It is time we finally had a better consensus on these overall matters.