Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Go west

The citizens’ panel studying the intractable and intertwined issues of development and preservation in western Howard County offered an informal solution at the last meeting. Their idea, which is not at all like mine, centers on something they’ve termed a “density bank.”

The essence of the plan is for the county to spend millions of dollars to acquire building rights, or density, from property owners in the west and then to "bank" them until they are sold to developers over a number of years. Proponents of the idea said that as property values increase the county might make a profit on its investment, although that is neither guaranteed nor the motivation.

There could be multiple benefits, proponents said, some of which transcend the immediate conflict:

  • Land in the west, much of it agricultural, would be preserved and permanently safeguarded from development, which is the county's principle objective.
  • Property values in that region would be protected because the county would pay more per acre -- perhaps as much as market value -- which would provide landowners with an economic incentive not to develop.
  • Developers would not face losing over several years the ability to build hundreds of housing units.
  • The county's revitalization efforts elsewhere, particularly along U.S. 1 and the U.S. 40 corridor, would get a boost.
  • Affordable housing would be provided by creating "hamlets," or mixed-use villages, in some locations, including in the west, such as Lisbon, by transferring the density to those sites.

And everyone gets a free pony, too!

But seriously, doesn’t the county already spend money to do essentially the same thing with its current ineffective and underfunded agricultural preservation program? My understanding is that the county currently buys easements to preserve land, and in so doing, removes any development rights from the property, contingent on the terms of the easement. The beauty of easements is that they don’t cost as much as straight-up development rights because, as part of the deal, there is usually some type of ongoing property tax reduction. Or so I think.

What this proposal seems to promise are the same results but at a higher cost. If that's the case, why not just increase funding for the agricultural preservation program? Of course, because the county can recoup its costs by selling its banked development rights. I don't know. Real estate brokering is not something I like to associate with government and (dare I say) politics.

I wonder why the county has to be an active player--instead of overseer/regulator--in this process at all. Doesn't it seem eminently more sensible to have the county watch from the sidelines, thereby insulating it, at least to a degree, from what could become a very messy situation?

"It's a pretty simple idea," committee member Theodore Mariani, vice president of the architecture firm CSD Mariani, said after Monday's meeting. "It's just going to require a little finesse. The county would be able to, in a sense, barter the density and put it where it wants the density. And it gets the money back out of the development process to pay itself back for having made the investment."

Simple? How would the county objectively determine what development rights to buy and at what price? Who would decide to whom the county sold its development rights and at what price? How long would the county be required to hold these rights? Would county development rights take precedence over the rights of existing landowners? Is this legal?

I came up with these questions in just a few minutes, and I'm sure there are plenty more. Such a plan doesn't seem very simple. In fact, the only thing that seems simple about this is who benefits: landowners who would get nice payments from the county while at the same time protecting their property values; and developers who would not lose the ability to develop the hundreds of housing units.

At least county planning director Marsha McLaughlin understands the complexity of the situation, to some extent:

While McLaughlin said there are serious political, legal and financial issues to explore, she said, "buying and banking might be a more doable option" than some of the other ideas that have been suggested.

What about my idea? Let the county create the framework for the system and then let free market principles take over. Granted my plan's not fully thought out, but I could come up with a couple of bullet points, too. And, I could even guarentee a pony.

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