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Building Issues

July 19, 2005

by Jack Lynch

The problem of Montgomery County building violations is somewhat shocking, and so are the responses to them.  That homes were built beyond planning codes height limits, even if staff erroneously drafted higher restrictions, is, we hope, a phenomenal occurrence of misapplication of codes, and builders lack of due diligence. 

It is difficult to imagine that any builder would not immediately look at higher heights and say ‘that’s just not right, the county won’t allow that!’  However, the desire would be strong and tempting for builders to see the heights allowed in order to better fuel the market, and they might fall prey to a form of wishful thinking when they see a plan released with code violations. 

Even as we sit amidst an affordability crisis in housing at the low end of the market, most of our buyers are demanding greater height and space and luxury features.  Naturally businesses will do business, which is to maximize profits.  To sell.  Sometimes it merely means survival. 

We generally don’t fault business for doing just that, whether it means lowering costs or adding value, but these cases are about breaking the law, which is supposedly beyond the moral code of doing legitimate business.  Not only is the public trust violated, but so is the element of fairness in business.  It’s of similar effect to the kind of bribery that has at times come in brown bags, (or cigar boxes), of cash in Maryland.

The concern is that profit potential drove the actions.  That somebody suspected that they could get away with it.  It is hard to imagine, given that punitive response is typically harsh to such violations and violators.  And in this political season, we can already sense the grandstanding and vituperation from several quarters.  In politics, pigs may indeed fly.

What happens in Montgomery is sure to flow over into Frederick, for good or bad.

While the Frederick News Post placed this item as a headline, (I guess that because of lowered Frederick readership, they’ve decided that all the Montgomericktonians will be their circulation salvation), that seems a tad incendiary, and exploitive.  The purple text ‘Montgomery’ above it only caught my eye well after I’d dropped my jaw over the ‘County freezes building permits’ which was in suitably large and expressive type.  Perhaps there is a connection between the veracity and factual aggressiveness of the press, and it's economic and readership vitality? 

We need, either a press, or a vigilant citizens group, to get inside Winchester Hall and study the reams of documents.  Someone needs to make sense of this hidden data on just how many building permits we’re allowing, and how many permits result in homes actually being built over the long term.  We need truth to stand in approval or dismissal of projected regional planning in this county, and we’re not getting it from our public servants, Winchester Hall and the talking heads we place there for temporary roles in elected positions.  We need an overseer.

They could further investigate if we have the same problems as Montgomery County in inspection and code variance.  Just the possibility of sunshine would probably cause some sleepless nights among elements of both local government and local builders. 

Frederick lacks the kind of watchdogs, or even a watchpuppy that can keep the public protected and informed, and on guard for the potential threats to public life that are likely to emerge in an atmosphere of reduced state funding, and increased campaign financing, and conflicts between the old political networks, and the new migratory, unengaged populace.  It takes time, it takes effort, and it takes finances, else it takes a few dedicated citizen advocates. 

Please God, send us their names.

Fiscal Impact Study

I offer a qualified endorsement of allowing the study of fiscal impacts by home development.  At best, it demonstrates the proper balance of tax and cost benefits, so that impact fees can be adjusted accordingly.  At worst, it becomes a ‘letter from Mom’ for developers, which then will be held up to demonstrate that they’ve met their full responsibility, regardless of any quality of life or environmental damage they inflict in the growth process.

In addition, why not give us a study of the values that reside in our own Planning offices?   Tell us how many homes are in the pipeline.  How many approved to be built?  What percentage of those permits churn and never get developed, or return again for approval.  We can do that math.  Other counties give us this information. 

See Carroll County figures in this regards Here

What is also missing is any sense that a continuum of impacts will be assessed.  Costs and needs vary across areas of the county.  They vary by the total quantity of homes being built.  They are unlikely to take into consideration any uncovered costs passed on to citizens by not meeting infrastructure needs in the past.  And what factor of the public’s quality of life, or environmental and resource costs, will be included?  What is the value of preserved land versus more development?  What is the ultimate build-out of the County?  Other counties report this information. 

No professional economist is going to report that a single cost and benefit accrues to each and every home.  A home built in unincorporated areas of Route 26 may cost us little in infrastructure costs, but another one built in Urbana may add great expense. 

A hundred homes have a different incremental cost than a thousand homes.  The first home built may be the least expensive, and the last built the most expensive for infrastructure costs.  Costs are expressed by a curve. 

We are already starting out at the point on the curve where the costs escalate rapidly because of exponential growth in needs due to overextended infrastructure.  At best, we get a model of growth costs.

It is disingenuous at best to have the business community say that workers cannot afford to live here. Nothing in the study of cost benefits is likely to change the economics of being at the edge of one of the greatest job engines in the country.  The construction jobs that new development brings, ask them how many of those jobs are held by those who live within the county.  Ask them if local companies profit.  Let’s have all the facts about development on the table. 

Even a good valid study that all can agree is actionable, is but a temporary analysis of a shifting target.  It will likely increase impact fees, or at least set the stage for doing so, and I can approve of development paying for itself.  If we believed what the growth community has fed us for so long, we’d all be paying fewer taxes. 

 Let’s just not buy a pig in a poke.

Even with a fair study, this is just one benchmark on growth, that’s what’s wrong…we ignore the county Comprehensive Plan vision and take in no factors except tax value versus the cost of county infrastructure…no environmental costs, no land preservation costs, no consideration of traffic and quality of life impacts.