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Advertise on the Tentacle

May 1, 2006

Adequacy Standards: To test or not to test

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Winchester Hall - that bastion of normalcy and reasoned, rational debate - is buzzing over the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, or APFO.

On one side stand the forces of slower growth, adamant and passionate about their need to eliminate overcrowded classrooms, congested roads, and trickling water supplies. Their motivation to act is very pure; worries over a child's education and protection of their family's largest single investment are often the primary reasons. Lately, environmental activists and special interest groups are playing a larger role.

On the opposite side stand the developers, an amorphous assemblage easier to vilify if they are lumped together. Taken separately, they turn out to be harder to cast as the enemy, especially those whose investments built the hospitals, the higher learning institutions, and the non-profit human services programs so essential to community health and vitality.

The battle over these competing interests plays out in government hearing rooms, usually involving our local town governments and the Frederick Board of County Commissioners. Lately, the battleground has shifted to the unfamiliar territory of the Board of Education.

In 20-plus years as a county resident, it has become clear that this problem is more than a cyclical pro-growth versus no-growth debate. There are real, serious issues at play here, and the future of Frederick County hangs in the balance.

Using an APFO as a tool to manage growth emerged during the real estate boom of 1995-2002. Maryland is aided (or impacted) by it's proximity to the federal presence in the Washington metro area, and the demand for new housing is fueled by the high salaries paid to government workers and contractors.

Frederick isn't immune to this pressure, and the most serious large-scale development interest seems to track with the phenomenon of federal government influence. All of Urbana's major expansion, the growth of the Green Valley and Linganore, and most recently, Brunswick's plans for added growth seem to reflect the influence of the Capitol City.

Developers indicate that they simply produce a product that satisfies a demand, and that claim is true. No one, not even the wild-eyed evil demons described by Commissioner Lennie Thompson, would spend millions to build houses on a totally speculative basis without the expectation that someone would buy them.

In a nutshell, the problem isn't that houses are being built to sell to willing buyers; the problem is that all of the other "stuff" that needs to be supplied to create a healthy community doesn't exist.

Anti-growth forces, coming off a recent rainy protest in front of county headquarters, used to direct their anger and frustration at the developers, assailing the idea of profit motive over the interests of their kids.

Now they've found a new target, and maybe the new targets are more appropriate. A recent recommendation by the county's Board of Education breaks new ground in the growth battle. The developer of the un-built sections at Lake Linganore has proposed to provide funding to add seat capacity at the schools in the Linganore High feeder pattern.

In order to let this new proposal move forward, the BOE needed the concurrence of the commissioners in a waiver of the county's APFO. The APFO requires that a developer verify, by submitting data in various forms, that roads, schools, and water and sewer systems are adequate to support and sustain the new development.

The Linganore developer's offer basically involved a promise of over $60 million for school construction. The stumbling block is the definition of adequacy. The current APFO requires a school to meet at least 100% capacity threshold; the proposal would relax that standard to allow a number of units to be built coincident to the school addition.

The BOE doesn't have the authority to waive the APFO requirement, but in concert with the county's Planning and Zoning Commission, they do have the ability to negotiate the timing of the funding and the priorities as to where the money will be spent. Only the mighty BOCC can amend the APFO, mostly because the "O" in APFO stands for Ordinance, and the commissioners control the county ordinances.

Commissioners Bruce Reeder, Mike Cady, and John Lovell voted to approve the APFO text amendment. Their vote, based mostly on the strength of the BOE's recommendation, is the spark that lit the fuse on the current no-growth-rhetoric explosion.

In a recent news report, BOE President Dr. Michael Schaden remarked that without significantly more state school construction investment, it is becoming increasingly necessary for the BOE to look outside of traditional approaches to building school capacity.

Hyperbole is the enemy of compromise, and there are truckloads of hyperbole being thrown around by all sides. The pro-growth supporters talk about how housing will be priced out of the reach of the service workers if amendments like this are not adopted.

The no-growthers counter that we've destroyed the county and that unrestrained growth will turn Frederick County into Rockville.

They're both wrong. Regarding the developers argument, here's a simplistic view. Hey guys, guess what? House prices are already way beyond the reach of our teachers, police, and firefighters. Most have moved north or west in search of cheaper houses. The argument seems completely lacking merit when looking back over history.

This high housing price issue didn't arise yesterday. Moderate income earners and seniors on a fixed income have been flooding out of here for years. Now we're seeing the folks who can afford to live here sell their houses, take the equity, and buy a bigger house or more land in Washington County or Adams County (PA).

As for the no-growth crowd, they're using the classic fear inducing buzzwords to stir up electoral support for a big broom to sweep out Winchester Hall in November. Commissioners Cady, Lovell, and Reeder are the easiest targets given the recent APFO amendment.

At a rally on April 22, a probable candidate for county commissioner talked about how - with the advent of mega-malls - there are no communities left in Frederick County. Now, that's world-class hyperbole!

There are classic, traditional communities alive and well in Frederick County. In fact, there are even communities within communities throughout the county. I understand his, but to sell the idea, you have to package it in pretty wrapping.

There has not been a growth explosion; this is a myth that needs to be debunked. We've been building between 1800 and 2200 homes per year for decades. As mentioned earlier, the issue isn't that too many houses have been built. The issue is that the essential community services necessary for new growth to be sustained alongside existing residents was not provided.

Our past commissioners have struggled to balance tax rates against the ever-increasing need for services. The Winchester Hall hearing room is filled with parents of school-age children begging for more spending and senior citizens and long-time residents complaining about taxes going up too much.

It was in that context that the APFO emerged as a tool to shift a portion of the burden for adding needed infrastructure onto the entity most responsible for needing the additions in the first place - the developers.

Where the program failed most is in establishing a baseline of what adequate means. Schools throughout the county were already overcrowded, roads were already choked with cars, and water was already a precious commodity before many of the new developments of the last 10 years were proposed.

This recent APFO amendment is a mistake that will be viewed by history as a precedent that may well undermine future development planning efforts. That said we need to stop the accusations, acrimony, and political posturing and focus on determining what adequate really means, where we want houses to be built so our kids can live here, and how to deal with the cost of houses so those same kids can afford to realize the American dream.

Anything less just means we're in the cyclical no-growth/pro-growth game, and history has proven that this game has no winner.

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