Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Growth controlled?

Controlling growth is a messy, contentious exercise, full of unintended consequences and counterintuitive outcomes. Which is why I’m heartened to read this:


The latest enrollment projections, beginning in 2009, forecast only Manor Woods Elementary will be chronically overcrowded, or "closed," meaning home construction will be sharply restricted in that part of western Howard County.

And that school is expected to slip into the "open" category the next year because of an expansion program that will add room for 100 more seats.

While officials might never formally declare victory over the problem, their progress in easing school overcrowding in the past six years has been extraordinary.

Two factors have driven the improvements:

  • A sharp reduction in the rate of growth in the schools. For the academic year just concluded, for instance, there were 350 more students, compared with about 1,900 a year the system had in the 1990s.
  • An aggressive, multimillion-dollar expansion program that will have produced eight schools in as many years.

What’s not said in that first bullet is that reductions in school attendance growth is a direct result of drastic reductions in the rate of residential growth.

I’m well aware that these are projections and they are bound to change, but as a preliminary signal, the data indicate that growth in Howard County – despite perceptions to the contrary – is pretty well under control.

And, with respect to school overcrowding, our growth control measures – namely, the allocation limits – should be applauded. However, to say they have been unmitigated successes fails to acknowledge the broader, unintended side of things.

While we’ve made things better for students today – classes are less crowded, teachers can spend more individual time with them, etc – tomorrow could be a different story. Although many will move away, those who decide to stay in Howard might look back and wonder if lower enrollments were worth the tradeoffs.

When discussing growth controls, it’s easy to point out why they’re good: less traffic, less students in our schools (or decreased need for new schools), less degradation of “natural” land.

But what the negative side of things? “Residential units,” in the parlance of planners, are in reality homes for families that want to be a part of our community -- not traffic-generating, child-producing earth destroyers. When we restrict residential growth, we restrict entry into our community, perhaps to the point of keeping out people we’d otherwise value as neighbors. Growth restrictions don’t just limit the construction of new units, they increase the prices of existing ones.

I’ve long tried to point out the connection between our growing affordable housing problem and our growth control measures on this site. To be sure, a significant portion of the increased unaffordability of housing was the result of a super hot real estate market, which has since cooled. And though the affordability issue over the last few years was illustrated dramatically by these rapidly rising home prices, the problem will continue to simmer, albeit with less dramatic anecdotes, until something meaningful is actually done, which, fortunately (hopefully), could be soon:
The Robey administration is taking one more stab at the complex problem of providing affordable housing at a time of sky-high home prices with a 25-member citizens task force named yesterday. 

The group is to come up with creative suggestions by Nov. 1 -- one month before County Executive James N. Robey leaves office.

Robey said the failure to find ways of providing homes that low- and middle-income people can afford was his "greatest disappointment" after his first term in office and remains so today.


Prices for all ranges of housing have more than doubled since 2001, he said yesterday at a news conference, and only about 5 percent of the homes for sale in Howard are affordable for nearly half the county's households.



His efforts to raise salaries for police officers, firefighters, teachers and other county employees have not helped them find homes they can buy where they work, he acknowledged.



"The more they earned, the more housing costs increased," he said. Now, with the federal base-closing program due to bring thousands of new employees to Central Maryland, the impetus to do something is also greater, he said.

Of course, a similar task force last year basically accomplished nothing. But, perhaps, the community will wasn’t strong enough then, whereas now it might be. Or maybe the committee make-up was all wrong. Whatever the case, I’m optimistic that this committee will make good on its charge.

My hope, as it has always been with respect to affordable housing, is that we don’t settle for small things, for marginal increases in percentage set asides or miniscule, developer-funded “trust funds.” Instead of targeted, small-minded approaches, we need to address affordable housing not as an issue separate from growth, but as an integral part of our entire housing and community development landscape. As such, the committee, I believe, must address the impact controlling growth (i.e. limiting supply) has had housing affordability. Perhaps they can even recommend changes to the process that will bring about positive results – without cramming our schools.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

So, how many people do you think should live in Howard County? Do we need to be as congested as the counties surrounding DC?

Besides, last time I checked, home prices closer to DC were more than in Howard, so more development doesn't necessarily equal more affordability.

Or, should we continue to strive to avoid those counties' fates?

mary smith said...

Growth is 'under control'? Have you driven near the Manor Woods School district? Not only has Brantwood plopped down >100 mcmansions, but now we have garage 'villas' covering an expansive area still being built, Turf Valley residents loosing their battle, and every inch of undeveloped property along Marriottsville Rd. planned for more development. Rt. 70 is a parking lot 4 of 5 mornings after 6:15am. I don't leave my house on Saturdays any more, it's a mad house out there, and too many people drive like they're perpetually angry (working a job they don't like to pay a mortgage they can't afford?) This is not the culture I selected, and zoning was 3-acres minimum. A flat square acre runs $250k, not a small component in my real estate tax increases. This is why so many are talking about growth, and voting this single issue. What was once a gentle place to be has become part of the world where you need figurative armor and weapons prior to interacting. The growth may have made me a property owner-millionaire, but I'd rather go back to what was there prior. No kidding, that is how much has changed.

Why can't the developers pay for all the new roads and schools required? Why do our taxes have to be increased while developers are getting disgustingly wealthy with 'develop and run' methods?

Anonymous said...

The decreasing enrollment is not why the APFO chart is open. It's open because of the aggressive building campaign on the part of the school board and the willingness to fund it on the part of the County Executive. The building excise tax championed by the Executive a few years ago is why the chart is open. Take note, however, because the excise tax is now exhausted.

The future school board budgets of $94 million and $91 million will not be able to be fully funded without a revenue source like the building excise tax. One of two things will then happen: 1) the new schools which are "opening" the chart will be delayed; or 2) new schools will be funded and older school renovations will not.

Had the originally proposed transfer tax been passed, we would not be in this dilemma. If the new schools are delayed due to lack of funding, the county will be allowing development to occur without the needed capacity.

Anonymous said...

Right on, Mary, and good info of which I wasn't aware, Anon#2.

I wasn't aware of what an acre of land went for in the western part of the County, but in the eastern part it seems any old 1/2 acre will run $250k. Oh, and here's a fun fact - County forest preservation regulations allow developers who don't want to or don't care to meet their onsite forest retention obligations (up to an acre of deficit is allowed I think) to instead pay a fee-in-lieu (See Code 16.1210). The fee (last time I checked - but not listed in any of the online fee schedules), is a pro-rated paltry $23k per acre of deficit. So, if the County is going to turn around and spend that fee to acquire forest land elsewhere, they'll be holding out $23k trying to buy an acre when developers are willing to spend $250k-$500k to buy.

Maybe, County Council, it's time for you to adjust that fee-in-lieu upward or, better yet, eliminate the fee-in-lieu provision altogether and require complete onsite fulfillment of forest retention obligations?

Otherwise, it just seems like a big fat gift to developers (and a slight to the environment) to keep the status quo.

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