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The Tentacle


March 16, 2006

No Growth Mantra An Empty Hallelujah

John W. Ashbury

Ever since the voters of Frederick County elected Ron Sundergill, Gail Bowerman and David Gray as commissioners in 1990, the clamor from the no-growth crowd has steadily grown - from a whimper to a howl. Unfortunately for them, the shrillness of their chant has shown little in the way of tangible results.

Even today, with Commissioner President Lennie Thompson spouting his mantra on a daily basis, growth is a fact of life. The old economic adage about "growing or dying" seems to be playing out here. All the efforts of the no-growth crowd to stem the tide of an expanding community have led only to the increased cost of building and/or buying a house in Frederick County.

The Sundergill Board of County Commissioners was the first to put roadblocks in the path of home construction. It was the first to impose impact fees, for example.

But since 1993 the county has issued 24,552 permits to build new dwelling units countywide, including all 12 municipalities. That's an average of 2,046 new houses, townhouses, condominiums or apartments each and every year from 1994 through 2005.

Accurate figures were not available for all those years to breakdown how many of each was built. But in the last four years, of the 7,349 new units permitted, 3,971 were new single family houses; 1,829 were townhouses; 83 were for trailers; and 1,497 were "multi-family" units.

Impact fees are the largest addition to the cost of building a house, increasing now to more than $10,000 per new single family house, with a sliding scale down for smaller units. But increased fees for permits, plan review, etc., has also added greatly to the cost of construction.

Estimates today are that before you can turn the first blade of dirt for a new single family house, the county will demand and receive between $35,000 and $40,000 in fees. And that's after you have paid between $150,000 and $200,000 for the lot.

Now, if you want to talk affordable housing....

Figures obtained from the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, Inc., show that the average price of a house sold through the Association of Realtors in Frederick County was $144,802 in 1996. In 2005, the average sales price had risen $201,487 to an astounding $346,299, an increase of 139.2 percent.

Over the last four years, when market pressures national wide took hold, the average price of a house sold in Frederick County increased 67.5 percent, from $206,784 in 2002 to $346,299 in 2005, or an average of 16.8 percent per year.

The major problem in all of this is that the commissioners have stuck their collective heads in the sand and done little in the way of creating new infrastructure over those years. Can you name any new arterial road that has been started in the past 12 years? Not likely that very many citizens can do that - if any.

If you consider schools as a part of infrastructure, then the commissioners have done a pretty good job of keeping up with the demand, if not actually strutting ahead of the curve.

While the county was permitting 24,552 new dwelling units from January 1, 1994 to December 31, 2005, the school system has added 12,034 new permanent seats - 4,954 in elementary schools; 2,759 new middle school seats; and 4,321 new high school seats. At the same time the student body system wide has increased only 9,168.

So, why do we still hear so much racket about overcrowded schools? We are currently at 91 percent capacity, and yet some new schools have opened in the past four years above capacity. The answer is simple.

Our school board doesn't have the intestinal fortitude to do a system-wide redistricting to take advantage of the empty seats in some schools. Electing these public servants, instead of having them appointed by the governor, has made them more susceptible to the "slings and arrows of outrageous" parents, who will object to anything that "might" impact little Johnnie or Janie in the slightest way.

There are also more than 140 portables in use around the county, accounting for another 3,000-plus available seats. It should be pointed out, however, that some of them are used as an extra classroom for specialty subjects like music in schools that were built years ago and don't presently have space to meet the need in those subjects.

We are faced with perhaps the most important election for county commissioner in a generation. It is obvious from the figures presented here that previous "no-growth" commissioners have done nothing but increase the cost of buying a house here. Our children will not be able to afford to remain here as most of us would like.

There has to be a balance between those who want to curb the influx of new residents and the desire to accommodate those who are already here. Taxes and new fees have gotten totally out of hand. For example, this summer's tax bills will include a $23 fee for trash disposal. This is in addition to the "dump" fees already being imposed at the county's landfill on Reich's Ford Road.

If you live in a municipality, some of the taxes you are paying to the city and towns are directed to trash collection - to pay dump fees.

And, please note the impact the fire tax has on your total tax bill. It won' t be long before that exceeds the bill classified as "property taxes." The fire tax is calculated on the total assessed value of your home, and is not subject to any "cap" imposed by elected officials on property taxes.

The no-growth candidates in this upcoming election - like Lennie Thompson and Jan Gardner should they seek re-election - will tell you they plan to curb growth. Ask them how they plan to do so when they have been complete failures for at least the past eight years.

Add Kai Hagan, the only non-incumbent to announce a run for commissioner, to that mix and you will see one of two things happen: either the cost to build and buy a house will increase with no betterment in the infrastructure; or your tax bills will grow exponentially.

Apparently, the only way to curb growth is to impose a moratorium. But that won't happen because bonds have been sold to build schools, and without impact fees to retire them, the property tax load will become more burdensome.

With fuel-heating-electricity costs rising faster than the pocketbook can adjust, do we want citizens choosing between heat and food, much the same as some have been doing between food, heat and prescription drugs.

Add your ever increasing tax bill to the mix and you have a social service crisis unseen since the Depression of the 1930s.



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