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Old Growth "Facts" Are Myths In Changing Frederick County

Kai Hagen

June 05, 2002

Quick...

True or False?

? Growth provides needed tax revenues.

? Growth creates jobs and reduces unemployment.

? Communities benefit from a "good business climate" which includes minimal regulation, lower business taxes, and a variety of public subsidies.

? Environmental protection hurts the economy.

? We have to grow or die (or, as one candidate for Frederick County Commissioner said recently, we will "wither away on the vine").

? Smart Growth advocates are just another special interest.

If you answered "True" to some or all of those statements, you are certainly not alone.

But...more often than not, you would be wrong.

The statements above are some of the entrenched myths associated with growth and development. Repeated over and over again by many, including real estate developers, mortgage bankers and Realtors...and politicians, they have become articles of faith, fundamental "truths" we need not scrutinize as part of the public discussion and debate about our future.

Nevertheless, more and more often, these assumptions are being critically examined. There have been dozens of studies completed, and more are underway. They all come to the same conclusions.

Still, though the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming, it is not easy for people to question long-held beliefs, especially when those who do benefit continue to repeat the same old message.

Let's take a look at the first myth on the list.

We are still told that new growth expands the local tax base. Of course, it does generate revenues. No argument there. No less obvious, however, (even though it is far less publicized), new growth also generates substantial costs.

The fact is that common patterns of municipal growth during the last few decades, especially land-intensive sprawl, have consistently cost more in public services than was generated in taxes.

When new development does not cover either the immediate or ongoing costs of the services necessary to support it, those of us who are here already end up subsidizing additional growth. More of our current tax base - my money, your money - has to be diverted from existing services and amenities to help finance the public infrastructure required by the new development.

New development requires roads, sewers, water, electricity, schools, parks, police, fire protection, and other services. When development does not pay the full cost of its impact on the community, the public pays for growth, in many ways. Public funds may be depleted, or taxes increased.

The primary beneficiaries are the developers, bankers, Realtors, and construction companies who influence local government to direct public resources into growth-stimulating investments. A few profit, while the costs are distributed across the broader community - you and me.

And that is separate from any accounting of other indirect costs, such as increased traffic, crowded schools, water restrictions and the like.

And yet, for example, even basic efforts to raise one-time impact fees on new development to a larger *fraction* of their actual cost to local government are met with howls of protest.

Next time you hear it, take notice of who is protesting. Then consider if you would rather have higher property taxes, other new taxes, or declining levels of service as existing roads, schools, sewage plants and police and fire departments become overburdened.

You may already consider them "overburdened" when you sit in traffic, or when you find out your child has 30 classmates or attends classes in portables, or when you can't water your lawn or garden, or when there aren't enough soccer fields for all the kids in town, or when...well...you get the point.

Our families and towns are not "for-profit" businesses. Nevertheless, a family or a town that looked only at revenues, and ignored costs - economic and otherwise, would quickly be out of "business."

We commit sizable investments of public resources to support growth, yet fail to fully account for these costs in terms of the impact on existing residents and taxpayers, or on public facilities and natural resources.

When we do account for the actual economic, social and environmental costs of growth, it should be clear that there are major advantages to controlling growth - not stopping it, but slowing it and directing it.

After all, larger cities consistently have higher per capita taxes. If we consider the evidence, growth is very unlikely to reduce our tax burdens.

Growth and development can cut many ways. Intelligent planned growth can enhance the quality of life for Frederick County residents by adding and improving services, creating opportunities and new amenities, even contributing to the expansion of park land for people and wildlife. Or it can have a significant negative impact on our quality of life, decreasing our share of public services and facilities, while driving disinvestment, reducing competitiveness, and seriously degrading our environment and landscape.

Only the informed involvement of Frederick County residents (and voters) can guarantee that businesses, community leaders, developers, and local governments will work together to ensure that new growth occurs in a manner that improves the economy and environment of existing communities - our communities.

The future of our communities is too important to be primarily shaped by the creation of short-term construction jobs and profits, or the desire of some existing business owners to have more customers.

Don't believe the myth that growth is always good for the tax base and taxpayers. Maintain a healthy skepticism and ask questions. Who will profit from the development? What are the real costs and who will pay? What are the alternatives? How much growth can and should our community support? What kind? And how fast?

Expanding the tax base isn't a good deal if it means rising taxes or decreasing services, and trading our landscape for cookie-cutter malls and subdivisions and traffic jams and...

It would not be very smart.


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