Friday, July 28, 2006

Complex problems, simple solutions...

Doug Miller's column from yesterday's Flier embodies the kind of small thinking that creates more problems than it solves.

I don't want to get into a line by tedious line fisking, but I will mention a couple smaller problems I have with it before I get to the meat of what I want to say.

First, his characterization of those pressing for greater equity in our county as "squawking" for more affordable housing is unfair at best and mean at worst. But he's entitled to unfettered use of his thesaurus.

Second, his belief that "Howard County has not been strict enough in curbing housing growth" is his own, but the anecdotes he uses to support this house don't stand up to rigorous analysis. Overcrowded schools? Traffic? Leaving aside the fact that much of our traffic is a result of growth in Frederick and Carroll Counties, the notion that "a tour of any number of county schools" is enough to show you growth is a problem just doesn't stand up, especially considering the overcrowding situation seems to be taken care of.

Also, he complains that government "officials need more money" to keep services going. Funny, didn't we just cut property taxes?

We can argue all night about the proper rate of growth -- and indeed, his assessment is subjective -- but the conversation only benefits from a little more data and a little less anecdote. See, for instance, comments on this post.

Enough with the small stuff, however. The overarching purposes of Miller's column are to describe a "policy paradox" and to offer a solution. The paradox, he says, is that government officials in central Maryland are putting the brakes on housing growth at the same time they're actively pursuing economic development, meaning, as The Sun told us in three parts earlier this week, we're soon to have more jobs than houses. And The Sun's analysis didn't include any of the jobs from the military base realignment, which means their estimate of a shortage of 100,000 homes by 2030 is likely conservative.

Miller's solution, which echoes some of the sentiments I've heard from others, is simple:

Maybe the question is not whether to ratchet up jobs or housing, but whether to encourage both to cool down.

The local economy seems to be humming along just fine. Would it kill us to let some jobs go to West Virginia (or western Maryland, even)?

Who knows, it might just save us.

That's it? Send the jobs to West Virginia? If only he spent as much time thinking about a solution as he did thinking about a concise, clever way to end his narrative.

The problems I see with his solution are many, and I'm probably missing at least half of them.

From a snarky perspective, shifting west jobs slated for Fort Meade -- and, by extension, the civilian jobs they support -- is impossible because Fort Meade exists at a specific spatial location, which isn't in West Virginia or even western Maryland. But, that's just snark.

From a pragmatic perspective, don't you think people who live in West Virginia are going to be just as opposed to development as we are here, if not more so (hold on, let me ask my mom...Yes!)?

What about infrastructure? We at least have an infrastructure system that can be expanded much easier than building an entirely new system somewhere else. Economies of scale and all that. Effective public transit is at least foreseeable here, but there, not so much.

What about the environment? It seems to me that much of the damage around here is done. The environmental cost of additional growth in an urban or suburban setting is considerably less than it is in more rural, agricultural areas, where we stand to repeat the great destruction of open spaces that's already happened here. Moreover, given political will and market demand, the use of "green" building practices is more likely here than out there.

What about the fact that much of this growth in employment is completely beyond our control? BRAC's decisions have been made. We need to deal with them.

What about choice? Shouldn't companies at least have some power in deciding where they want to locate. And shouldn't landowners have at least some say in what happens on their property?

More than anything, Miller's column seems like a cop-out, a justification to shift our problems somewhere else. Much of us love Howard County, in part, because of its location, which is also perhaps the only attribute we have no control over. And the problems location pose -- that others want to live and work here, too -- are not ones we can simply ignore, which is, unfortunately, all he seems to recommend.


Anonymous said...

The property tax rate may have just been cut, but you're overlooking that property values have skyrocketed, meaning the pile of cash raked in each year has gotten a lot bigger.

And how can you refute Miller's assertion that the County didn't control growth enough when schools have been overcrowded for years and will continue to be for a few more years? Any parents of school-aged kids could enlighten you. A good indicator of insufficient growth control is when school lunch shifts are so crowded that kids stand waiting most of their lunch in line and then have just five minutes to inhale their meal - a wonderful way to fuel the learning mind.

Only hundreds of millions spent on new school construction has provided light at the end of this tunnel, but we're still in this tunnel and the future growth anticipated is the next tunnel to come.

Don't discount the solution he offers so quickly. The problem, simply put, is local demand is exceeding local supply. Why is accelerating the increase of local supply the only solution, it seems, you consider valid?

I imagine more than a few WV'ers would welcome the right kind of development, especially when even coal mining ain't what it used to be - union mines are getting swept away along with union pay and an effective MHSA.

At times it seems your only position on this is like Goldilocks picking only the porridge in the middle (put all the growth in Howard County) instead of having some of the cold porridge (don't so aggressively court development that some doesn't go to WV) and some of the hot porridge (allow some of the housing demand to be met by Baltimore), too. Unfortunately, it's not porridge we're considering and too much local growth costs in lost environment, lost quality of life, lost school quality, lost affordable housing, etc.

"What about the environment? It seems to me that much of the damage around here is done. The environmental cost of additional growth in an urban or suburban setting is considerably less than it is in more rural, agricultural areas, where we stand to repeat the great destruction of open spaces that's already happened here. Moreover, given political will and market demand, the use of "green" building practices is more likely here than out there."

It sounds like you're throwing in the towel for environmental preservation in the eastern part of the County, something even the General Plan doesn't do. How about, relative to the local environment, as you suggested, enhancing the conversation a little with more data?

"Don't make me start quoting 'The Lorax'", I'll say.
Replace 'Housing' with 'Thneads' and I'll go on all day.

Hayduke said...

There's a lag time between approval of development, when it actually gets built, and when the impacts are felt. In the past, growth may not have been managed as well, but today it is, in my opinion, and the fact that only one school will be on the closed chart in a couple years is proof of that. As for lunches, the problem likely has other sources than growth -- for instance, too many kids buying lunch (what's wrong with bringing a packed lunch nowadays?) and a lunch period that's too short.

Increasing supply isn't the sole answer, but it is an essential part of the solution. I'm on board with shifting some demand elsewhere, but that alone isn't going to cut it.

However, I've never fully articulated a vision for growth in Howard County or Columbia on this blog. And that's intentional. I'm trying to win support for anything and I'm not really trying to change people's minds. Mostly, I try to write things that aren't being said in order to spark a discussion. With so much of the local growth discussion dominated by those who see almost all growth as bad, I sometimes tack a even further away from that stance to provoke or to challenge. I don't think its working, however.

As for the environment, what kind of data? I said the environmental cost of development in the eastern part of the county would be less because much of our surface area is already developed -- that is, turned into impervious surfaces. Redevelopment of existing impervious surfaces (i.e. parking lots a la Town Center) does not increase the total amount of imperviousness in a watershed, and therefore has less of an impact on the local streams and rivers than converting forest or grassland (a la, western HoCo or even WVA) into development. As for land preservation, there's simply not that much land left to preserve east of Rt. 108. Which is why I often think we should shut off development west of that road entirely.

Anonymous said...

It will be better if my doubts are wrong, but based on the county's past planning, I am highly skeptical that only one school will be closed in a couple years. Changing demographics, aging population, influx due to BRAC, recent good national press - all these things point towards accelerated school population growth and, thus, my comment about the next tunnel of school overcrowding.

Redevelopment of existing impervious surface (a la Town Center) that results in higher population density begets increased the need for transportation infrastructure. Currently, the only solutions being offered for these expected transporation woes by county consultants and officials are:
- to relax the requirements for failing intersections (which will result in longer idling at red lights which equals more pollution)
- to build another interchange on 29 at South Entrance Road (which both increases impervious surface and cuts through wildlife movement corridor, stream, stream buffer, and wetland buffer).

This proposed interchange would, along with the previous reopening of the 29 South access from South Entrance Road, directly contradict General Plan 2000's call for protecting a greenway network.
"A greenway network can sustain critical ecosystem functions and link valued natural, historic and cultural resources. Such a network can provide continuous protected areas along streams and rivers, create habitat and travel corridors for wildlife, connect existing forest areas to create forest interior habitat, and provide areas for public access and recreation."

The kind of environmental data that would help is how well we're meeting (or how poorly we're failing) federal, regional, state, and local environmental regulations and goals, such as:
- '83's Chesapeake Bay Agreement and 2000's Chesapeake Watershed Partnership (these agreements rely to a very large extent on state and local planning and regulations and their careful enforcement),
- local goals include 1990 General Plan's Mid-County Greenbelt and 2000 General Plan's greenway network, and
- 2000 General Plan's need for acquring more parkland in the East and stated need to protect remaining environmental and landscape resources.

The recent studies covering the Patuxent watershed (Columbia and Savage) and Patapsco watershed (Ellicott City and Elkridge) show how far we need to go.

It would also be nice to know total area of sensitive environmental area (stream, wetlands, and their buffers) developed each year via waivers granted by DPZ instead of being protected as regulations intend.

Sticking features in Symphony Woods such as bricked walkways and ice rinks also reduces permeable ground cover, thereby increasing runoff. And the last time I checked, excepting for the paved access roads, the Crescent area is almost entirely permeable surface.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what's happened around here. You Dems are sounding like Republicans and the republicans are sounding like Dems. You react like you've been burned when someone suggests we stop pushing business? Business provides very little, if any, additional tax revenue over residential to local jurisdictions. (State is a different story). Why would we keep encouraging more job growth at the cost of more residential growth? Why not, instead, concentrate on helping our existing businesses?

Only one school is closed? Could it be because not only are we building more schools- we're building bigger schools? Is a HS of 1200 students better than a school of 1700 students? (Does a smaller school offer more opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities?) How many children have been redistricted in the last five years- as opposed to the previous five years? Does the quality of life and the stability of our existing children count as much as that of future children? Or can we keep shuffling them around to make the numbers work out well for the developers?

Nothing to be gained in terms of environmental values in the east? Have you been to Meadowbrook park or Rockburn or Font Hill? Environmental impacts of new development vs impacts of old development- Have you strolled through St. John's Lane community or Church Road or Allview and compared the larger lots, greener spaces and tree conservation with our newer neighborhoods like Mount Joy? How many developers have we let "buy" their way out of forest conservation instead of preserving forests on the land they are developing- in the last five years, over the previous five years? We are amending Bills not to reduce but to eliminate setback from open space from POR- how is that good?

Traffic- Do you really think that all of our traffic problems are through traffic from other counties? This may be so for Route 32 or 70 or 29,but it isn't so for Route 40, Centennial Lane, Route 216 or Ten Oaks Road.

Sure,go ahead, stick your head in the sand in an effort to align better with your party of choice or take the harder walk, forget politics and look honestly at where we are in reference to our General Plan. We are there. We have reached our growth goals. Now what? Follow blindly the path of least resistance- or do a little hard work and examine our future?

Think regionally- forget WV. How about Baltimore City? At the same time we can preserve what remains of our environment and agricultural land, we can help revitalize our neighbors to the north. They have housing, public transportation and good housing values. But they need better schools, and a lower crime rate,and a commitment from the region, not lip service.

Honestly, you sound like you should be writing a republican blog. Next you'll want to cut taxes, outlaw abortion and institute a three strikes law for criminals. Geez.

Anonymous said...

It was Doug Miller's piece in the Flier that stuck WV into the conversation. Previously, the more regional train of thought discussing Baltimore had been brought up in comments on this blog.

Kids definitely shouldn't be shuffled around just to meet school capacity levels so development can roll right along.

And current loopholes letting developers buy their way out of forest conservation are pitiful. If the developer comes up short for onsite forest retention obligation, they only have to pay a measly sum, prorating $23,000 per acre for up to one acre of "allowed" shortage. That's about a 95% discount, isn't it? Dumb to not require meeting 100% of the forest retention obligation onsite, and even dumber to give a big, fat discount to coming up short.

Eliminating setbacks? Boooooo.

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