Saturday, December 10, 2005

You can't have it both ways

I'm not sure who writes the editorials for the Columbia Flier, but reading the previous two, I don't think it's unfair to say that person a little confused.

First, last week the Flier endorsed the plan for a proposed 22-story high rise in Town Center, saying the new building will help spur revitalization. Implicit in their support for this building was the notion that more growth, including residential units, is needed downtown.

This 160-unit complex, which would include retail and dining along with its luxury condominiums, is just the sort of facility to spark the quasi-urban renaissance that both the downtown master plan and Columbia founder James Rouse envisioned. It will encourage foot traffic in the lakefront area and to the mall, perhaps even the central library, not to mention the other destinations that officials hope will sprout in town center in the coming decades.
However, on the heels of this editorial comes one this week that says the county has not acted strongly enough to effectively control growth, allowing it instead to run rampant while county services--presumably not the State's Best School System and Country's Best Library System--are taxed to the point of breaking.

The suburbs continue to expand, commuters travel longer distances and local governments make mostly half-hearted attempts to apply the brakes to a runaway train. Measures such as Howard's Adequate Public Facilities Act, which puts a temporary halt on development where existing roads and schools are incapable of carrying the load it would bring, obviously are not equal to the task.

State government's attention to these issues seems to have waned since "Smart Growth" proponent Gov. Parris Glendening left office. Meanwhile, the administration of County Executive James Robey and the County Councils that have served over his two terms have sat on their hands. Howard County has not implemented significant growth-control measures since the adequate facilities ordinance went into effect in 1992.

It's a chicken-and-egg situation: Road-building begets growth, which begets road-building, etc. But at whatever point in the cycle our elected officials can step in to slow it, they should do so. To let the current trend proceed unabated will have disastrous consequences for our quality of life and for the taxpayers who foot the bill for new schools, sewage treatment, refuse disposal, police protection and a host of other expenses that grow with the county's population.
Now I'm willing to give the Flier the benefit of the doubt--they're positions may be very nuanced and I may be missing some of the intricacies; indeed, the second editorial emphasizes a study that shows that Interstate 70 will need to be widened to accommodate traffic.

However, what I find most dishonest is the notion that the county has done too little to control growth. To be sure, the adequate facilities act was passed over a decade ago, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been effective. It also doesn't mean that other measures of growth control are not used. Indeed, the county vastly limits the supply of new residential construction through it's housing allocation chart, which is updated and approved in a public setting each year.

Some may say, and have said, that the county does too much to control growth. Exhibit A: Housing prices.

More important, though, is the need to understand that growth is not really something we can control, especially in its impact on our roads. Whether we like it or not, more people are going to move to our area, even if we keep them out of our county. And these people will find somewhere to live--if not here, than further west, where the land is cheap (relatively) and plentiful (also, relatively). Unfortunately, many of these people will still need to drive to or through our county; widened highways are inevitable.

A wiser approach than trying to stop an inherently exogenous problem would be to widen our perspective and approach it intelligently instead of reflexively, which was the goal of "Smart Growth," a concept that has been so tarred I'm amazed the Flier would even invoke it's name.

These things are hard, though, and require honesty to properly address. Living in a bubble is so much easier.

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